Thanks to ease of access, an ambitious national airline, a growing hotel landscape, an active convention bureau, and a stunning conference centre, Kigali is starting to flex its muscles as an African business travel destination of choice.
Kigali is the capital and largest city in Rwanda, located in the geographical heart of the country. It has been Rwanda’s economic, cultural, and transport hub since it became capital at independence in 1962.
To embrace the Kigali of today, it’s important to understand its complicated past. In 1994, 800,000 ethnic Tutsi citizens were systematically murdered by their Hutu neighbours over the course of 100 unspeakably brutal days. But the past 24 years have seen Rwanda put its troubled past behind it and build towards a prosperous future, with Kigali at the centre of it.
The Rwandan government has identified the business events industry as a growth opportunity for the country, with the Rwanda Convention Bureau mandated to grow this sector.
The catalyst for this growth has been the formation of the RCB and the opening of the Kigali Convention Centre and adjacent Radisson Blu hotel in 2016, with Marriott International also opening a property in 2016. Together with a small, but efficient airport, clean and easy-to-navigate city, friendly locals and an already-inviting leisure tourism offering, suddenly Kigali can make a case as an African business events destination of choice.
According to data from the Rwanda Development Board, the 27th African Union Summit in Kigali in 2016 pumped an estimated $4.2 million into the Rwandan economy, while some $2.4 million was received from the World Economic Forum on Africa in the same year.
Kigali has hosted a series of other large events since 2016 and this year will see, among others, events such as the International Conference on Human Rights & Prison Reform, the Annual International Hospitality & ECO-Sustainability Conference, and the 13th International Conference on ICT for Development, Education & Training e-Learning Africa, all taking place in the Rwandan capital.
The government aims to earn $150 million a year from meetings, incentives, conferences and events, which would triple in a year what Rwanda earned from hosting international meetings in 2013. Tourism on the other hand, earned the economy some $340 million in 2015.
The government has also invested heavily in infrastructure including building inter-city roads, renovating Kigali’s airport, facilitating the construction of five-star hotels, and inking a deal to build Bugesera International Airport, 25 kilometres outside Kigali.
All of which adds up to a solid foundation for fostering development and growth in the MICE sector.
AIRLINES & AIRPORTS
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 been upgraded in the past few years and the expanded facility can now handle 1.5 million passengers annually.
On arrival, there are two visa queues at passport control – one for visitors with pre-arranged visas and a second for passengers issued visas on arrival. It costs $30 for a visa and this can be paid either in cash or by card.
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 Pearl Airport Lounge, KIA’s only lounge. It is located airside next to Gate 1 and is open 24 hours a day. Economy class passengers can pay $30 to enter the lounge, which also accepts Priority Pass. The Pearl Lounge offers complimentary drinks, snacks and wi-fi, as well as a host of electrical sockets.
What’s rather useful is that wi-fi is also available throughout the airport and is easy to connect to and use.
Just a heads-up when leaving the country – there are various security check-points when entering the airport precinct, requiring you to exit your car and deposit your luggage on the sidewalk, before sniffer dogs conduct a search. This can obviously delay the departure process.
Once you get to the airport, there’s 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. Once airside, you are screened again at a security check-point before being allowed to proceed to the tarmac.
RwandAir seems intent on growing its route network every year. It already has a substantial network of approximately 30 destinations, including connections to some of the African continent’s most important business travel destinations, such as Johannesburg, Lagos, Abuja, Accra, Abidjan, Nairobi, Entebbe and Dar es Salaam, whilst early-2018 saw the airline add Cape Town to its route network.
Internationally, RwandAir flies to London, Brussels, Dubai and Mumbai.
Meanwhile, preparations are advancing on the construction of a new international airport outside Kigali at Bugesera, which is projected to have its first phase complete by December.
Kigali has received a fair bit of interest from international hotel chains over the last few years, with Radisson Hotels and Marriott both entering the market in the past two years. These two groups offer stiff competition to the well-established Kigali Serena, once the only five-star hotel in the city. The most recent development, though, was the announcement in 2017 that the 153-room Ubumwe Grande Hotel in the Kigali CBD would trade under the upscale DoubleTree by Hilton brand when it fully converts in 2018. This franchised property has 134 rooms and 19 apartments and will undergo some changes in order to rebrand. It will be Hilton’s first property in Rwanda and once rebranded will trade as the DoubleTree by Hilton Kigali City Centre.
Hilton are obviously hoping that property will be able to provide some competition to the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre, Kigali, which opened in 2016 and has been grabbing market share due to its location adjacent to the city’s premier convention centre, and its comprehensive offering. It has 292 rooms and two on-site restaurants, including one with all-day dining serving up continental and Rwandan favourites, and the Lounge Bar offering lighter fare and nightcaps. There are a total of 18 meeting rooms, including a state-of-the-art auditorium that accommodates more than 2,000 attendees, and the hotel also offers 650 parking bays. Radisson Hotels bolstered its offering in 2017 by opening the 161-room Park Inn by Radisson. The hotel is just five kilometres from the convention centre, offers complimentary high-speed wi-fi, good food at the Live Inn Room Restaurant and the lobby bar, drinks and snacks at the Pool Bar, and has ample parking, function rooms, a night club, swimming pool, gym, beauty salon and treatment rooms.
So, a feather in the cap for Radisson Hotels – the first international hotel group with two properties in Kigali, with the more ‘premium’ Radisson Blu next to the convention centre, and the more ‘select services’ Park Inn by Radisson a short drive away.
The Kigali Marriott opened in September 2016. It offers 254 rooms and 1,500m2 of meeting and event space. Guests have a choice of dining options with four restaurants and three bars on site. In addition to a heated outdoor pool and spa treatments, Saray Spa Wellness & Fitness offers a fully-equipped gym, free fitness classes, and a sauna.
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.
Local group, CityBlue Hotels has two properties in Kigali, in the form of the Embassy Row Hotel & Suites and the Urban by CityBlue.
Within a 10-kilometre radius of Kigali International Airport are Hotel Chez Lando, Top Tower Hotel, Step Town Motel, Stipphotel and, of course, the famous Hôtel des Milles Collines. Opened in 1973 and on the receiving end of global interest since the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda in 2004, Hôtel des Mille Collines offers 112 rooms and suites in the heart of Kigali.
KIGALI CONVENTION CENTRE
Kigali Convention Centre is positioned on a hilltop in the heart of Kigali and has become the premier conference venue in Rwanda since opening in 2016.
The unique translucent dome, modelled on a traditional ‘king’s palace’, holds 18 multi-functional venues and has space to accommodate over 5,000 delegates. This includes an auditorium spanning 1257m2 and offering plenty of space and convenient partitioning solutions for walls and floors. It’s ideally suited to large conferences, concerts and meetings.
There are also a host of large conference halls and smaller meeting rooms, and a pre-function area spanning 2416m2.
All the venues are equipped with high-quality audio-visual equipment.
Nationals of the Democratic Republic of Congo can visit Rwanda without a visa for a period of up to 90 days.
Citizens of the East African Community – Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – can obtain a six-month visitor pass (renewable) upon arrival, with no fee required.
Nationals of South Africa are issued with an entry visa valid for a period of up to 30 days, upon payment of $30. Those wishing to stay for longer than 30 days and/ or enter more than once can exit and re-enter Rwanda to obtain another 30-day visa, or pre-apply for a tourist visa, valid for 90 days with multiple entry.
Nationals of all other African countries are issued with an entry visa upon arrival at any Rwandan entry point. A $30 fee is still payable, but there is no need to pre-apply.
If you are visiting Kenya and/ or Uganda as well as Rwanda, you should consider applying for an East Africa Tourist Visa. It costs $100 and is valid for 90 days.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for travel to Rwanda.
Motorcycle taxis are the most popular in Kigali, as it is the most cost-effective way to get around. Laws require these “taxi motos” to wear identifiable jerseys and helmets, and that they carry an extra one for their clients at all times. Most drivers speak basic English or French. Private taxis are common and can be found at designated taxi stops throughout Kigali. One can also hire a private taxi by phone or if at any hotel, reception can book a recommended driver for you.