Rwanda prepares for ambitious tourism recovery

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With lucrative sponsorship deals in place with Champions League football clubs, plans to become a major air travel hub for East Africa and ambitions to host global sports tournaments, the Rwanda is preparing an ambitious recovery in tourism after the damage caused by Covid-19.

But as it vies to establish itself as a world-renowned tourist destination, Rwanda faces its fiercest competition not from its East African neighbors, but from southern Africa, according to the analysts. Following the horrors of the 1994 genocide, which crippled the country’s tourism sector for more than a decade, Rwanda had to start from a position of relative insecurity and consumer anxiety, placing the sector at a disadvantage in its efforts to lure tourists away from destinations such as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

Rwanda Volcanoes National Park (Image: djoslin/Adobe Stock)

Regional cooperation

Its leading role in the development of the East Africa Tourism Platform (EATP), established in 2012, has demonstrated that Kigali sees the neighboring markets of Kenya and Uganda not as competitors, but as assets that can attract international visitors to the “land of a thousand hills”. EATP promotes travel to and within East African Community (EAC) member states, facilitating the emergence of an East African tourism circuit that projects an image of regional stability while creating common industry standards.

The importance of regional cooperation was clearly demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Intra-regional and cross-border tourism has thrown a lifeline to Rwanda’s hospitality industry at a time when massive shutdowns in international source markets were depriving the sector of its usual demand. While this provides only a small cushion – the EATP reported a drop in income of around 92% between 2019 and 2021 – a steady trickle of income has nonetheless been provided by East Africans traveling locally.

These efforts are also “all about regional marketing,” says Nigel Vere Nicoll, president and CEO of the African Travel and Tourism Association. African Affairs.

“The market they are fighting is the Southern African market… East Africans are consolidating more and more now – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda in particular and to some extent Ethiopia.

Mountain Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. (Photo: Danita Delimont/Adobe Stock)

Rwanda’s sports strategy

Rwanda has been particularly aggressive in marketing itself as a global tourist destination – tourism agency Visit Rwanda has a $12 million shirt sponsorship deal with English Premier League’s Arsenal and a similar deal worth up to $10 million a year with French Ligue 1 club Paris Saint Germain. In May, Rwanda welcomed first-team players Julian Draxler, Thilo Kehrer, Keylor Navas and Sergio Ramos for a three-day promotional visit.

The country’s natural attractions are a key part of the marketing strategy – during their tour, the stars went on safari in Akagera National Park and visited the famous mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.

Rwanda’s sports strategy goes beyond sponsorship deals – Kigali hosts the NBA’s annual Basketball Africa League, the basketball superpower’s first competition outside of the United States, and the country showed up as a major destination for cycling, volleyball and other sports.

Promoting and hosting the sport is just one aspect of the country’s outreach strategy. The country should also work with the EAC to remove regulatory barriers to tourism. Nicoll, whose organization has 630 members in 21 African countries, predicts that “Schengen-like policies” modeled on European free movement will open new opportunities for a sector that already contributes an average of 8.1% to the GDP of economies. of the EAC, generating 17.2% of export earnings and sustaining a combined total of 3.26 million direct and indirect jobs according to an October 2020 report by EATP.

EAC visa provisions allow East Africans to cross borders between member states free of charge, with just a national identity card. Meanwhile, international tourists visiting the region can apply for a single document, the East Africa Tourist Visa, which allows them unrestricted travel between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya for 90 days. for a cost of only 100 dollars.

The ripple effects of the Covid closures on tourism source markets have demonstrated that “stretching these alliances and encouraging cross-border and domestic tourism is extremely important. That’s how they survived,” says Nicoll.

The Kigali Arena, seen from the outside.

Can Kigali become an air transport hub?

Facing competition from Addis Ababa and Nairobi, Kigali hopes to become a major air transport hub in East Africa. Furthermore, it is hoped that a lucrative deal with Qatar Airways will help make Rwanda a self-sustaining destination for international tourists and insulate it from the ripple effects of future regional instability.

Talk to African Affairs in March, RwandAir CEO Yvonne Manzi Makolo outlined plans to transform Kigali into a major public transport hub following the expansion of Bugesera International Airport. Due to be completed in 2024-25, the expanded Bugesera will allow 7 million passengers to travel across Rwanda each year. A September 2021 deal that saw Qatar Airways buy a 49% stake in RwandAir and a 60% stake in the airport will be mutually beneficial.

The codeshare has “connected the Kigali air transport hub to the Doha one, allowing us to expand our network significantly,” says Makolo. “We can now reach most of Eurasia, while Qatar can reach most of Africa.”

Rwanda’s air transport sector has rebounded strongly from the pandemic, with passenger numbers on track to return to pre-Covid levels this year. While plans to build on the 29 routes proposed in 2019 were scrapped, the closure offered an opportunity to revisit existing strategies. RwandAir ceased operating less profitable routes to Senegal, Juba and Tel Aviv, replacing them with new destinations including Bangui (CAR), Goma and Lubumbashi (DRC).

Competing with other regional hubs in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, however, will be difficult. “I don’t know if they’ve become a hub,” Nicoll says. “I’m not sure they really want to be a hub when they have two big hubs on either side.”

Kenya’s slow recovery and lack of a concerted Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) strategy could strengthen Kigali’s case. Kigali’s state-of-the-art, $300 million convention center opened in 2016 has no such modern equivalent in Nairobi.

“Nairobi, which has more hotels than virtually anywhere else in East Africa, has really suffered a lot and Kigali has taken a very strong hold in that market in that they were the first to go forward with the convention center there,” says Nicoll.

Kigali Convention Center and the Radisson Blu Hotel in Kigali.
A view of Kigali with the Kigali Convention Center (left). (Image: JS Gordon-Moran)

Industry hopes for peaceful elections in Kenya

But even when Rwanda has the edge over its near neighbours, the success of its tourism strategy could be dictated by the political events unfolding there. Kenya’s upcoming presidential election on August 9, hotly contested by Raila Odinga and William Ruto, comes at an inopportune time for East Africa’s recovering tourism industry. Election controversy and concerns over potential violence have traditionally had a negative impact on tourism, not just in Kenya but across the East African region, which depends on Nairobi as the main transport hub. airline for international tourists.

“If there is a problem in Kenya, there is a problem in all of East Africa, because the whole region is affected – especially with Nairobi as the hub,” Nicoll says. “That’s the problem with East Africa. It’s grouped together, so either they’re all up or they’re all down.

EAC countries experienced strong growth in tourism until 2007. However, this came crashing down when violent protests in 2007-08, which claimed up to 1,000 lives, combined with the crisis financial. International arrivals to Kenya fell by 47.5% between 2007 and 2009, according to data published in the Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research, while Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi also struggled to attract visitors.

“We find that tourism, which is highly dependent on international arrivals, reacts more to election-related events,” writes Steven Buigut, professor of economics at the Canadian University of Dubai. “Tourism stakeholders should recognize the particular vulnerability of this sector and consider designing special programs to keep tourists safe during times of high risk.”

Kenyan industry leaders were nevertheless optimistic about the upcoming elections. “I have to congratulate the Kenyans,” veteran Nairobi hotelier Mohamed Hersi told the Kenyan newspaper. Star. “We are politically mature and want to reassure the world that Kenya is peaceful. In the past, people would leave the country during elections, but we are past that. We are confident that the industry will remain stable.

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