Despite being an ideal tourist destination, many Rwandans have continued to ignore the beauty of their country while foreigners remain the best story tellers of the country’s beauty and wonders.
When Joe McDonald and Mary Ann, an American couple landed in Rwanda in 2003 for the first time, their main destination was the home to the rare mountain gorillas, the Volcanoes National Park.
On January 5, they celebrated their 75th visit to the gorillas.
“We decided to come very often and our 75th visit is not the last. We will keep coming until we reach hundred times and more,” Mary Ann disclosed adding that every year they make up to three visits to the country and five rounds in the park.
The couple has spent around US$ 1m in the visits with the friends they brought on board.
“There is no other place in the world where you can be so close to large wild animals and be safe,” McDonald told The New Times shortly after completing their record breaking visit on January 5.
Officials in the tourism department in the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) say they have never registered such a record from any Rwandan. Not even for ‘smaller’ wonderful packages such as the canopy walk in Nyungwe and the game safari in Akagera that are sold by various tour operators.
But although the number of tourists in general increased from 18,865 in 2009 to 27,000 tourists in 2011, according to statistics from RDB, Rwandans always lag behind their foreign counterparts in visiting parks, except in the Akagera National Park where about 10,362 Rwandans were registered to have visited the park, compared to 8,649 foreign tourists, in 2011.
There are also fewer Rwandans visiting the six museums and 80 historical sites in the country.
Statistics from the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda (IMNR) indicate that by June 2012, of the 151,000 visitors to the six museums, 100,666 were Rwandans, an insignificant number considering their target is 600,000 local and foreign visitors.
Despite a steady increase in the number of park activities bought by Rwandans – 10,263 and 13,172 in 2010 and 2011- RDB believes they are still very few.
The explanations offered by Rwandans for not visiting the various tourist sites are diverse, including the most common one that prices are very high.
Most people The New Times talked to said they visit some of these sites only when the companies or institutions they work for plan to visit the parks, usually once a year. Otherwise, a family can barely plan a visit to a tourist site.
According to Innocent Bahati, a civil society activist, many costs involved such as transport, entry fees, picnic and sometimes accommodation make visiting tourist sites expensive.
“I feel that Rwandans, like most Africans, would rather visit places outside their own country,” observed Darla Rudakubana who visited Rubavu Beach once, adding that she has only started thinking of Rwanda as a tourist attraction recently.
To visit a park, a Rwandan resident pays about Rwf 5,000 and Rwf 30,000 against US$ 60 and US$750 for foreigners in Nyungwe National Park and Volcano National Park respectively.
In museums, the entry fee for locals is Rwf 1,000 against Rwf 6,000 for foreigners. Unfortunately, there is no fee set for the historical sites, regrets Alphonse B. Umulisa, the Director General of IMNR in charge of cultural tourism. And yet, most Rwandans don’t visit these either.
But Rica Rwigamba, the Director General of tourism and conservation at RDB, says the issue of price is an excuse because someone can spend much more on a night out with friends and family.
“We are conscious to make it accessible for Rwandans when it comes to price so I don’t think it is the impediment. More awareness, education and change of culture that tourism is for foreigners is what is needed. That’s our priority and we trust it will improve further and bring more local tourists.”
Working with schools for study trips and marketing destinations are some of measures that Rwigamba thinks will increase the number of local tourists.
Her views were echoed by Paulline Uwera who works with a telecom company in Kigali.
“The only problem we are facing here is the mindset. People think tourism belongs to the wealthy that have time to waste and money to spend,” she says. This should be the case. Rwandans need to be proud of Rwanda. And what better way than to know the country’s most beautiful and historical sites.
SOME OF RWANDA’S ATTRACTIONS
*Gisozi Genocide Memorial site
*Murambi Genocide Memorial site
*Rukari Kings Palace
*Huye Ethnographic Museum
*Natural History Museum