Rwanda may be one of the smallest countries in Africa, but there is so much going on there that it can no longer be considered a ‘small player’. Kate Kennedy visited the ‘land of a thousand hills’ and found a country bursting with potential and ambitious plans.
Twenty years after the horrific genocide that cost over one million people their lives, Rwanda has made a remarkable recovery. The Rwandan people refuse to let their country be dictated to by its past and the government should be commended for creating an environment in which the majority of the country’s citizens seem to be pulling in the same direction, in an attempt to make Rwanda an attractive destination, from both a leisure and business travel point of view.
And it seems they are on the right track.
According to tradingeconomics.com, Rwanda’s GDP expanded 0.60% in the second quarter of 2015 over the previous quarter. GDP growth averaged 5.85% from 2000 until 2015, reaching an all-time high of 13.40% in the first quarter of 2007.
Although still poor and mostly agricultural (90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture), Rwanda has made significant progress in recent years, in terms of diversifying its economy. New industries such as tourism, cut flowers and fish farming have been gaining importance. The major source of foreign trade is coffee, tea, tin cassiterite, wolframite and pyrethrum.
Not only is Rwanda one of the fastest growing economies in Africa – albeit off a low base – it also has ambitious infrastructural plans, many of which are already under way. That includes an upgraded airport, internationally-branded hotel development, a large new convention centre due to open in 2016, and an aggressive connectivity drive, with the focus of that development on the capital Kigali. Further to that, Rwanda is clean, safe and seemingly organised.
“There is also a real focus on developing business, so banks and shops are open until late, and on weekends,” says Sarah Hall, Tourism and Marketing Manager at the Akagera Management Company, which markets the Akagera National Park in Rwanda.
The Rwandan government has also recognised the role that tourism can play in lifting the profile of the country, by investing in this sector and identifying it as a key element in the development of Rwanda.
“The groundwork to handle increased tourism has been laid,” says Manzi Kayihura, Director of Operations at Thousand Hills Expeditions, a Rwandan destination management company. “We have a new tourism board and a new tourism policy. We expect much of the growth in tourism to come from increased conferences and meetings (see sidebar), so the new international convention centre has been part of our preparation. The investment in hotels and lodges has also been substantial.”
Animosity and violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis began as far back as 1959, but reached boiling point in 1990, when a rebel group of Tutsi exiles in the DRC invaded Rwanda. The fighting lasted three years, until a peace deal was brokered. However, on 6 April 1994 a plane carrying then-President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart– both Hutus – was shot down. Hutu extremists used this as an excuse to blame the Tutsi rebels and set about a highly organised manhunt. As neighbours turned on each other and militia-manned roadblocks ended the lives of Tutsi men and captured Tutsi woman for sex slavery, millions fled into neighbouring countries.
The genocide of the Tutsis lasted 100 days, in which time 800,000 deaths were recorded. The actual figure is over a million, and victims are still being unearthed today, their remains being moved from their point of discovery to one of the mass grave memorial sights around the country.
But the people will not allow this blemish to mar their future. Peace has been restored and the country is determined to create a bright, safe future.
“Rwanda has an inspiring story of reconciliation,” says Hall. “In a relatively short period of time Rwanda has turned around from the devastation of the genocide to one of the most progressive countries in Africa. Rwandan people are now proud and have great solidarity and commitment to their country and a better future for everyone. There is a strong vision for Rwanda, with specific targets set in their ‘Vision 2020’ programme, and they are making good progress towards reaching those goals.”
Vision 2020 is a government development programme launched in 2000 by President Paul Kagame, after he came to power in that year. Its main objective is to “transform Rwanda into a knowledge-based middle-income country, thereby reducing poverty, health problems and making the nation united and democratic.”
Airport & Airlines
Kigali International Airport is small, clean and airy, with large windows. It sits about 10 kilometres east of the city, with the drive taking roughly 20 minutes. The airport’s infrastructure has recently been upgraded and the expanded facility can now handle 1.5 million passengers annually.
On arrival I encountered two visa queues at passport control – one for visitors with pre-arranged visas and a second for passengers issued visas on arrival. I joined the latter and once I’d paid my $30 entry fee my passport was added to the bottom of a growing pile for the necessary stamping. Shortly thereafter I was allowed to collect my bag from the carousal about 20 metres from passport control.
There isn’t too much in the way of additional extras at Kigali International, aside from a smattering of duty-free shopping, a small coffee shop and the RwandAir lounge for its business class passengers.
Kigali currently receives direct flights from Nairobi, Entebbe, Bujumbura, Addis Ababa, Kilimanjaro, Brussels, Amsterdam, Dar es Salaam, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Juba, Lagos, Lusaka and Dubai, whilst RwandAir seems intent on growing its route network every year.
Catching your flight out of Kigali requires a full security search at the entrance to the building, where you are made to remove shoes and belts. There’s also a passport security check and you have to provide two electronic thumb prints at passport control. Once airside, you are screened again at a security checkpoint before being allowed to proceed to the tarmac.
Kigali International was recently ranked as the fifth-best airport in Africa by Canadian website sleepinginairports.net. The survey it conducted credited the airport’s recent renovations, noting that the works “improved the airport’s efficiency and security.”
Commenting on the ranking, the head of communications at Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCCA), Tonny Barigye said that the country’s government would continue investing in the airport, noting that more than $17 million had already been spent in renovations and expansion to further improve the airport and aviation industry generally.
Sharp increases in aircraft movement into and out of Kigali International has already prompted the RCAA to build a separate taxiway, particularly as national carrier RwandAir now operates a fleet of eight aircraft and is due to increase this number by 50% in 2016.
The launch of long-haul operations to China, India and Europe has made the construction of a taxiway a matter of priority. Recently, ground was broken as construction got underway, and the new taxiway is expected to be ready during Q2 of 2016.
Meanwhile, preparations are advancing on the construction of a new international airport outside Kigali at Bugesera, which is expected to cost in the region of $650 million. Earlier in the year, the runway at Kamembe Airport in the south of Rwanda was expanded, following the national masterplan for enhanced aviation infrastructure for this landlocked country, which depends on air transport to bring in visitors.
Kigali is Rwanda’s capital and business hub. It is booming with construction – new hotels are popping up in anticipation of the conference business it hopes to attract when it unveils the new $300 million Kigali Convention Centre in 2016.
I was surprised, and a little concerned, to see armed patrols in the streets of Kigali, but was reassured by my driver that their presence is a normal part of daily life. I never saw a weapon lifted and the city is considered one of the safest in Africa – I didn’t feel threatened in the slightest.
It’s also one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever visited.
“Plastic bags are banned and you will be asked to leave them at the airport if seen with them entering the country,’ says Hall.
The last Saturday of every month is ‘Umuganda’ which is a community service day where all citizens are expected to participate in organised local events such as cleaning, helping a local school or church, or planting trees. All shops are closed and public transport doesn’t operate until midday. Far from being viewed as a chore, Rwandans look forward to Umuganda, viewing it as a time to spend with friends.
“Umuganda means making a contribution to the common good and is a long-standing tradition for Rwandans,” says Francis Gatare, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. “It started as a clean-up effort, but has evolved into taking responsibility for the environment.”
There are currently only two major hotel brands with a presence in Kigali, in the form of European luxury hotel group Kempinski and renowned African group Serena Hotels, which also has properties on the continent in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.
Serena assumed control of its Kigali property in 2008, adding a new wing of accommodation, a spa and conference facilities. The Kigali Serena, about 20 minutes’ drive from the airport, is among the premier conference venues in the city, with a permanent marquee that can accommodate 1,000 people and a ballroom that can take up to 800 guests. There are also a number of other rooms for smaller gatherings. The Milima Restaurant, overlooking an inviting clear blue pool, serves some of the best food in the city. I thoroughly enjoyed my chicken curry, lamb kebabs and orange cake.
Opened in 1973 and on the receiving end of global interest since the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda in 2004, Kempinski’s Hôtel des Mille Collines offers 112 rooms and suites in the heart of Kigali. Four dining options include La Terrasse, the Pool Bar, Le Panorama and the Legacy Lounge. Eight meeting and conference rooms can accommodate between 25 and 300 delegates.
With only two recognised brands, Kigali remains fertile ground for further international hotel development, with Carlson Rezidor arguably the most high-profile and advanced of the group’s with designs on the Rwandan capital. Rezidor has a 292-room Radisson Blu and a 161-room Park Inn by Radisson under development. The Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center, Kigali is scheduled to open in mid-2016 and is located in an office park, which includes the new convention center.
Marriott is also expected to open its new Kigali property in 2016, whilst there are longer-term plans for a Protea – another Marriott brand – and a Sheraton, with the latter projected to open in 2018.
Away from Kigali, Serena’s other offering in Rwanda is the Lake Kivu Serena on the shores of Lake Kivu in the north-west of the country and in close proximity to the border with the DRC. The hotel overlooks its own private beach and offers 66 rooms, suites and family accommodation, a panoramic restaurant, indoor and beachside bars, a swimming pool, a spa and a fully-integrated conference centre.
Rwanda has a good local transportation system for inter-regional connectivity, a good road system, and has plenty of vehicles willing to transport passengers.
Short distances within cities can be travelled either on foot or by taxi-velo (bicycle taxi). However, the majority of people in Kigali prefer the taxi moto, or motorcycle taxi. These taxis zip in and out of traffic, allowing for pretty quick travel times for lone passengers, and congregate in clumps along busy roads waiting for business. These taxis are regulated.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve more than tripled the number of motorcycles on Rwanda’s roads,” says Gatare. “They are freely-operating entrepreneurs providing the city with a necessary service. In fact, they’re spurring innovation. There is now an online platform where drivers can register and let people know of their safety and punctuality. They can then be booked by members of their community. It’s an Uber-like platform in Kigali for our motorbike taxis.”
Hotels such as the Kigali Serena have in-house transport at the disposal of its guests, but private taxis can also be arranged by hotel reception.
Citizens of the East African Community (Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) are issued with a six-month visitor pass (renewable) on arrival at no charge. Travellers from Mauritius and DRC may visit for up to 90 days without a visa. South Africans pay $30 on arrival and are permitted to stay for 30 days. For those wishing to visit Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, there is an East Africa Tourist Visa for a single cost of $100. Applications should be made in advance with the country to be entered first.
The major hotels and tourist establishments will take credit and debit cards, and you can withdraw cash from ATMs in the cities and larger towns. You will, however, need to bring cash if you are required to pay for an entry visa. I learnt the hard way that South African rands will not be exchanged for Rwandan francs. Rather bring US dollars, pounds or euros if you usually travel with cash, and be sure to spend or exchange your francs before departing Rwanda.
The country has some of the best cellphone coverage on the continent. It is wired with over 3,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables and reception even in the forests is as clear as a bell. The government launched 4G LTE services across the country in 2014 and in many hotels there is unlimited wi-fi access available to guests, often without login credentials. Speeds are fast enough to stream movies without buffering issues.
It’s no secret that visiting the habituated family groups of mountain gorillas is a huge attraction, but it does come at a cost and with certain limitations. Permits cost $750 per person and the hike into the forest requires a certain level of fitness. Even the trek to see the families of habituated golden monkeys at a cost of $100 per person isn’t for everyone. These are certainly great attractions, but are not the only leisure options available.
“If you’re energetic or adventurous, you could try the canopy walk, great treks and amazing birding at Nyungwe National Park,” says Hall. “And soon you’ll be able to have a big five safari experience at Akagera (see sidebar), as soon as the lions that were transferred from South Africa are acclimatised.”
Tea and coffee are important parts of Rwanda’s economy and visiting a tea plantation or coffee roaster should be on everyone’s list.
“It is also important to visit the genocide memorial in Kigali to understand where Rwanda has come from and see how far the country has come in a relatively short period of time,” says Hall.
Entry to the memorial is free and you can wander through the gardens and displays. However, you can hire an audio or personal guide to help explain what you’re seeing and the tour includes an introductory video featuring heartbreaking stories of some of the survivors. If you would like to take pictures, for your own personal library, you will pay $20 per camera.
Yellow fever vaccinations are required to enter Rwanda and it is recommended that visitors take precautions for malaria.
“Rwanda has successfully scaled up malaria control interventions over the past 10 years, reducing the prevalence of malaria nationwide, and the country has set ambitious goals of having near zero malaria deaths by 2018,” says Hall.
However, preventative measures are still recommended.
It is not recommended that visitors drink the tap water, but rather stick to the bottled stuff.
Make sure you pack either two-pin plugs or an adaptor for British three-pin plugs. Some hotels may have adaptors that you can borrow, but don’t bank on it.
Rwanda is not without its challenges, but it has ambitious plans and a clear desire to change itself for the better. Also in its favour is its friendly, welcoming culture, which should stand it in good stead, as it works towards becoming an African business and leisure travel destination of choice.
Population: 11.4 million
Time zone: GMT +2
Plugs: Two-pin, British three-pin
Dialling code: +250
Currency: Rwandan franc – $1=745RWF
Language: Kinyarwanda, English, French
Akagera National Park, two hours’ drive from Kigali, is located in the north-east of Rwanda along the border with Tanzania, and is named after the Akagera River that flows along its eastern boundary. The park is home to a wide selection of antelope and birds, but you’re also likely to spot giraffe, elephant, buffalo, leopard and baboons. Earlier this year, lions were re-introduced after being absent from Akagera for almost 15 years, and in 2016 plans are underway to re-introduce black rhino, which will restore Akagera’s status as a ‘Big Five’ park. Guides are available to ensure you’re in the best place to catch sight of the wildlife. You can book a night drive to view the nocturnal animals and get close to water dwellers on a boat safari. Fishing is available on Lake Shakani and several camping spots allow you to spend a night out among the sights and sounds of the bush.
Rwanda – emerging MICE player?
Outstanding biodiversity, a rich cultural heritage, a robust business environment, excellent safety and security, an expanding airlift, and the improving quality of meeting venues and accommodation are some of the key assets on which Rwanda is building its sustainable business events tourism sector. Rwanda Development Board identified the business events tourism sector as providing a clear and long-term opportunity to diversify and grow Rwanda’s export strategy. The Business Tourism Company was appointed in 2014 to implement Rwanda’s National MICE Strategy and establish the Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB). The key objective was to grow the sector, thus contributing to the achievement of Rwanda’s ambitious Economic Development Poverty Reduction Strategy II objectives. RCB serves as the focal point for the co-ordination of all business events tourism industry activities. It is responsible for building the country’s business and events brand and aims to position Rwanda in the top 10 African meeting destinations by 2019-20 (based on ICCA Africa rankings). Under the strapline ‘Meet in Remarkable Rwanda’, the RCB was launched in March 2014 to stakeholders nationally, with a formal international launch at IMEX Frankfurt in May 2014. RCB’s broad objectives are to market Rwanda as a preferred business events destination, work with key institutions (e.g. RwandAir, tour operators, industry stakeholders) to position the country as a regional business events hub, bid for new business and build capacities in the private sector (professional conference and event organisers).
Rwanda’s capital city is preparing to unveil the Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), due to open in mid-2016. Positioned on a hilltop in the heart of Kigali near parliament, the development is set to become one of the most recognised and iconic modern structures in Africa. With a maximum capacity of 2,600, the KCC will help position Rwanda as a leading business events destination in East Africa. In tandem with the KCC, a number of international 5-star hotel brands are currently under development (Radisson Blu, Marriott, Park Inn) with over 600 high-end bedrooms coming on to the market. Just ten minutes from the city centre, the Kigali International Airport has recently been upgraded and is now able to handle 1,500,000 passengers annually, triple its previous capacity. Coupled with the sector’s basic infrastructure and telecommunication requirements, there is a growing desire to find new meeting and event destinations, especially in the incentive segment, as long as they are considered safe.
(Rick Taylor is the CEO of the Business Tourism Company, a consultancy working across the business events arena with clients such as Rwanda.)