As 2015 draws to a close, Travel News Rwanda’s GILBERT MWIJUKE reflects on the year’s top hits and misses.
RwandAir becomes first in East Africa to acquire Airbus 330 aircraft
In a year during which majority of the continent’s national airlines lay financially belly-up, RwandAir had reason to celebrate when it became the first East African airline to acquire the Airbus 330 aircraft.
Rwanda’s national carrier signed a purchase agreement for two Airbus aircraft – an A330-200 and a larger A330-300 – on September 8.
“Aircraft deliveries will begin in the second half of 2016, enabling the country’s carrier to deploy its new flagship aircraft on medium and long-haul routes serving destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia,” RwandAir said in a statement.
The two aircraft, which are set to arrive in Kigali in September 2016, will feature a three class cabin layout: the A330-200 will have 244 seats (20 business class, 21 premium and 223 economy class) and the A330-300 will have 274 seats (30 business class, 21 premium and 223 economy class), the RwandAir statement said.
Lions roar again in Akagera National Park
In the 1970s, Rwanda boasted a lion population of about 300, which freely roamed the Akagera National Park.
However, in the ’80s and early ’90s, the declining numbers of herbivores in the 112,000-hectare park, coupled with human-wildlife conflict, led to a rapid decline in numbers of the famous big cats.
Things fell apart after the grotesque 1994 genocide when the park was left unmanaged and was occupied by internally displaced people, which created room for herders to poison the remaining few. By 1999, Rwanda’s lions had been declared extinct.
So, for African Parks, the non-profit organisation that is currently running Akagera National Park in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the best success of 2015 was welcoming back the king of the jungle. On June 29, a pride of five female and two male lions, which were donated by &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, were translocated to the Akagera National Park in what African Parks described as “a ground-breaking conservation effort for both the park and the country.”
And the impact of the lions is already being felt, if Jes Gruner, the manager of the park, is to be believed. According to him, the number of domestic visitors to the park increased by 37 per cent this year, driven by the reintroduction of lions. Gruner says domestic tourist numbers rose from 12,809 in 2014 to 14,890 this year.
“Many of the tourists are attracted by the lions more than any other animals,” he said. “The lions have no doubt had a great impact on the park.”
24 baby gorillas named
On September 5, 24 baby gorillas were named – up from 18 last year and 17 in 2013 – during the 11th Kwita Izina ceremony, which was held at the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park in Musanze district.
Kwita Izina is an annual baby gorilla naming and conservation fete that pays homage to the centuries-old Rwandan tradition of celebrating the birth of a child.
Kwita Izina has helped highlight the importance of protecting the critically endangered species and, to a greater extent, it’s because of this event that the mountain gorilla population in the Volcanoes National Park has increased by about 4 per cent, making gorilla trekking one of the country’s most viable tourism products.
Rulindo Cultural Centre, another tourism product
“Tourism should not be seen as only visiting parks and gorillas and going to the lakes,” said Julienne Uwacu, the Minister for Sports and Culture. Uwacu was speaking during this year’s World Tourism Day celebrations in Rulindo district as she officially unveiled the Rulindo Cultural Centre.
“Tourists need to be given the unique Rwandan cultural experiences like visiting this centre and be shown all we have seen displayed in there. As Rwandans, we all have to support tourism based on culture and enjoy it as well,” the minister added.
The launch of the cultural centre was a big success for Rwanda as the country seeks to diversify its tourism products.
“We have been relying on gorilla tourism for so long and it is the right time to develop more diversified tourism products. Tourism also has a critical role to play in generating knowledge and engendering dialogue and understanding across and between cultures,” said Berise Kariza, the chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board.
First half sees slump in international visitors
The beginning of 2015 was not good for Rwanda’s tourism industry, according to data from the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
Yes, there was a 2 per cent increase in visitor numbers to the country’s three national parks — the Volcanoes, Nyungwe and Akagera. However, a slump in the number of international visitors — the big spenders — meant that tourism revenues were 11 per cent off the previous pace.
A total of 29,595 tourists were registered between January and June this year compared with 29,128 in the same period in 2014, but revenues dipped to $5.9 million from $6.6 million collected in the same period last year.
“We suppose that the drop in international visitor numbers and revenues was mainly caused by regional insecurity and the trickle-down effect of Ebola. Most foreigners don’t distinguish African countries; when a problem occurs in one African country, they think the entire continent is affected,” an official at RDB told this writer.
More than 100 hotels up for public auction
As international visitors kept away in the first half of the year, Rwanda’s medium-sized hotels struggled to be profitable. Local media reported that over 100 of them were put up for public auction after owners failed to service the loans they took to set up their businesses.
Some of the hotels that were reportedly up for auction included Eldorado, Alpha Palace, Carl Hotel, Grace Apartments, Gulf Hotel, Eden Hill Hotel, Karisimbi Hotel and Sinai Suites.
“Many of us took bank loans. After we built the hotels, we are not finding who to host. Our hotels are now being auctioned by banks at very low prices,” Sylvester Mupenda, president of the Rwanda Hotel Group, was quoted in local media as saying. Sad story.