Eastern African country, Rwanda is taking giant strides in rebuilding its tourism sector after the devastating effects of Covid-19. They have lucrative sponsorship deals with Champions League clubs and plans to be a major hub for East Africa’s air travel.
According to africannewspaper.net, analysts say Rwanda is facing stiff competition from South Africa as it tries to be a top tourist destination. Following the horrors of the genocide in 1994, which paralysed the country’s tourism sector for over a decade, Rwanda has had to build from a position of relative insecurity and consumer anxiety, placing the sector at a disadvantage in its efforts to draw tourists away from established destinations such as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
Its leading role in developing the East Africa Tourism Platform (EATP), established in 2012, has demonstrated that Kigali views neighbouring markets in Kenya and Uganda not as competitors, but as assets which can draw international visitors to the “Land of a Thousand Hills”. The EATP promotes travel within and between member states of East African Community (EAC). This facilitates the creation of an East African tourist circuit that projects regional stability while establishing common industry standards.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a stark reminder of the importance of regional cooperation. Intra-regional, cross-border tourism threw a lifeline to Rwanda’s hospitality industry at a time when mass shutdowns in international source markets starved the sector of its customary demand. While this provided only a small cushion – the EATP reported revenues falling by an estimated 92% between 2019 and 2021 – a consistent trickle of income was nevertheless provided by East Africans travelling locally.
These efforts are also “all about regional marketing”, Nigel Vere Nicoll, president and managing director of the African Travel and Tourism Association, tells African Business.
“The market they’re fighting is the Southern African market… East Africans are banding together more and more now – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda particularly and to some extent Ethiopia.”
Rwanda’s sports strategy
Rwanda has been particularly aggressive in marketing itself as a global tourist destination – tourism agency Visit Rwanda has a $12m-a-year shirt sponsorship agreement with the English Premier League’s Arsenal and a similar deal worth up to $10m-a-year with French Ligue 1 club Paris Saint Germain. Rwanda hosted first team players Julian Draxler (Thilo Kehrer), Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos and Keylor Navas for a three day promotional visit.
The country’s natural attractions are a key part of the marketing strategy – during their tour, the stars safaried in Akagera National Park and visited the famous mountain gorillas at the Volcanoes National Park.
Rwanda’s sports strategy goes beyond sponsorship deals – Kigali hosts the NBA’s annual Basketball Africa League, the first contest held by the basketball superpower outside the USA, and the country has pitched itself as a major destination for cycling, volleyball and other sports.
Sports promotion and hosting is just one aspect of the country’s outreach strategy. The country will also work with the EAC to remove regulatory barriers to tourism. Nicoll, whose organisation has 630 members across 21 African countries, forecasts that “Schengen-type policies” modelled on European freedom of movement will unlock further opportunities for a sector which already contributes an average of 8.1% to the GDP of EAC economies, generating 17.2% of export earnings and sustaining a combined 3.26m direct and indirect jobs according to an October 2020 report from the EATP.
EAC visa provisions allow East Africans with only a national identification card to cross borders between member countries without any fees. Tourists from abroad visiting the region can apply to the East African Tourist Visa at $100. This permits them to travel between Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya for 90 consecutive days.
The knock-on effects of Covid lockdowns in tourist source markets demonstrated that “stretching these alliances and encouraging cross-border and domestic tourism is extremely important. That was what they survived on”, says Nicoll.
Can Kigali become an air transport hub?
Kigali is aiming to be a major East African air travel hub amid fierce competition from Addis-Ababa and Nairobi. It is also hoped that a lucrative agreement with Qatar Airways will help Rwanda establish itself as an independent destination for international tourists, and protect it from future regional instability.
Speak to African BusinessYvonne Manzi Makolo (RwandAir CEO) presented plans to make Kigali a major transit hub in March following the expansion Bugesera international airport. The expanded Bugesera will allow 7m passengers to travel through Rwanda every single year. Work is expected to be completed in 2024-25. It was mutually beneficial to both Qatar Airways and RwandAir that they purchased a 49% and 60% share in the airport in September 2021.
Code-sharing has “linked Kigali’s air transport hub with that of Doha, which allows us to expand our network significantly”, says Makolo. “We can now reach most of Eurasia, while Qatar can reach most of Africa.”
Rwanda’s air travel sector has rebounded strongly from the pandemic, with passenger numbers on course to return to pre-Covid levels this year. The shutdown allowed for a review of existing strategies, despite the fact that plans to expand on the 29 routes available in 2019 were scrapped. RwandAir has stopped operating the less profitable routes to Senegal and Juba, and has replaced them with new destinations like Bangui (CAR), Goma, and Lubumbashi(DRC).
However, it will be challenging to compete with other regional hubs such as Addis Ababa and Nairobi. “I don’t know about them becoming a hub”, says Nicoll. “I’m not sure they really want to be a hub when they’ve got two big hubs either side of them.”
Kenya’s slow recovery and lack of a concerted meetings, incentives, conferences & exhibitions (MICE) strategy may strengthen Kigali’s case. The $300m state-of-the art Kigali Convention Centre opened in 2016. It is the only comparable modern facility in Nairobi.
“Nairobi, which has more hotels than practically anywhere else in East Africa, has suffered really badly and Kigali has moved into that market very well in the sense that they were the first to go ahead with the convention centre there,” says Nicoll.
The industry hopes for peaceful elections in Kenya
Even though Rwanda has an advantage over its nearest neighbours, Rwanda’s tourism strategy may be affected by political events in Rwanda. Kenya’s upcoming presidential election on 9 August, tightly contested by Raila Odinga and William Ruto, comes at an inopportune time for East Africa’s recovering tourism industry. Concerns about violence and electoral controversy have had a negative effect on tourism in Kenya and across East Africa. Kenya is dependent upon Nairobi as its main airport for international tourists.
“If there’s a problem in Kenya, there’s a problem in the whole of East Africa, because the whole area gets affected – particularly with Nairobi being the hub,” says Nicoll. “That’s the problem with East Africa. It’s banded together, so either they’re all up or they’re all down.”
EAC countries enjoyed strong growth in tourism up to 2007. However, the financial crisis and violent protests of 2007-08 caused a collapse in tourism. According to data published in Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research (JoTHR), international arrivals to Kenya dropped by 47.5% between 2007 and 2009. In contrast, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda also struggled to attract visitors.
“We find that tourism, which is highly dependent on international arrivals, exhibits more response to events related to elections”, writes Steven Buigut, professor of economics at Canadian University Dubai. “Tourism stakeholders need to recognise the special vulnerability of this sector and consider designing special programmes to assure the safety of tourists during periods of elevated risk.”
The upcoming election is expected to be a success for Kenyan industry leaders. “I must commend Kenyans,” Veteran Nairobi hotelier Mohamed Hersi told Kenya’s Star. “We are mature politically and we want to reassure the world that Kenya is peaceful. People would have fled the country in the past during elections. But we are now past that. We are confident the industry will remain stable.”