Rwanda: In the land of the mountain gorillas, congresses are taking root

Rwanda is doing its best to leave the war behind. A tourism and Meetings Industry boom is giving a helping hand to the country’s growing economy.

In September, Rwanda meets at the foot of Virunga volcanoes to provide the greatest homage in the life of any inhabitant of the country: the giving of a name. But in this case the named are baby mountain gorillas, a species that is the symbol of this nation and which, having already been on the verge of extinction, is now the target of the greatest care and attention from Rwandans. The ceremony, called Kwita Izina, dates back to 2005 and is a strong sign of Rwanda's accelerated development after the devastating 1994 genocide that killed between 800,000 and a million people. And if the little gorilla had an internet access, it could see its photo published, with the name, date of birth, sex and identification of the "godfather" who named it. This special celebration is carefully prepared and preceded by events, a gala dinner and conferences around the theme of conservationism, including visits from journalists and other international players, to increase Rwanda's notoriety in the world, and show that the country is already a far cry from the dark days of the 90s.

Despite this, Rwanda has not forgotten its history, marked by centuries of challenges posed to the three ethnic groups that make up the population, the Hutus and Tutsis, who have fought each other for centuries, with the not always calming intervention by colonial powers, in this case Germany and Belgium, and the mysterious Twa, a Pygmy people whose home were the dense, green forests that cover a significant part of the country. In the capital, Kigali, a memorial can be visited on the genocide victims, mostly Tutsi, and where 250,000 people are buried. In the same city also operates Hôtel des Mille Colines, famous for the film "Hotel Rwanda".

Primate paradise

Year after year, an increasing number of tourists travel to Rwanda for organised safaris, in which the main stars are the super-protected mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. The latter made Nyungwe forest in the southwest of the country their home. Lonely Planet says it is an "unparalleled experience, to seek out our cousin, more genetically alike," on walks through the deep forest. And if the little chimpanzees are a natural attraction, what about the 400 Angolan colobus monkeys, with their white beards, just one among several species of primates that curiously watch tourists travelling the forest routes?

There is a varied offer of companies that organise these trips, with accommodation and meals included. A safari very almost a world away from those organised in Kenya or South Africa.

For those who like to get a suntan, Gisenyi is a good alternative, in a country that has no sea. The sandy shores of Lake Kivu attract richer Rwandans and foreigners, with a comprehensive hotel offer.

MI more significant in tourism

With arguments like these it is not surprising that Rwandans are welcoming more and more visitors. Rwanda is one of the fastest growing African countries and its focus is now on economic development, including through tourism. GDP has grown at a rate of more than 5%, according to World Bank data, and Rwandans have invested in environment, biodiversity and hotel industry. Their priority is to look to the future, where tourism is of vital importance, and the Meetings Industry (MI) is key to this country's strategy.

Speaking to Event Point, Frank Murangwa, CEO of the Rwanda Convention Bureau (CBR), revealed that investing in the MI is a way to complement leisure tourism, and creating this agency has helped the country attracting international events.

MI's revenues have been consistently rising in Rwanda. From US $29 million (€24,1 million) in 2014, they reached US $47 million (€39 million) in 2016, according to the same source. The country hosted events such as the Africa Cup of Nations, the World Economic Forum on Africa, the African Union Summit, the Global Africa Investment Summit, the Africa Hotel and Aviation Development Forums and the 28th Meeting between the signatories to the Montreal Protocol, among many others.

In addition, the capital Kigali has moved up to third place in the ICCA (International Congress and Convention Association)'s ranking for the African continent. In the city there are more than a thousand hotels, between three and five stars, and a congress centre that welcomes 2,600 people.

Frank Murangwa revealed that Rwanda has received 45 conferences in 2016 and for this year 94 are planned, an increase of over 108%, in a country where "the most important markets are Africa, Europe, Asia and North America."

For the CBR's CEO, the African continent has a lot of potential in this sector. "Over 70% of the events hosted previously are Africa centric. There are a lot of African association meetings that rotate within" the Continent, he explained.

The Convention Bureau employs 29 people, and since it was established the number of people moving to conferences in the country has increased from 17,950 to 35,100. Overall, the tourism industry generated revenues of USD 404 million (EUR 336 million) in 2016 from USD 305 million (201 million euros) in 2014.

A country still unexpected for an event, but soon ceasing to be so.

© Rwanda Convention Bureau

Tags: Destinations, Africa, Rwanda