Industry experts and stakeholders are saying that the move is favouring neighbouring countries since more tourists fly to Rwanda but end up travelling farther afield to Uganda for gorilla trekking.
Otieno Nondoh, a development studies researcher and a lecturer at the University of Rwanda, says the neighbouring countries are taking advantage that visitors are coming through Rwanda’s Kigali International Airport but particularly go to Uganda since they are naturally looking for cheaper gorilla trekking alternatives.
“Tourists who can’t afford the high cost of gorilla trekking will look for alternatives and Uganda is best positioned for this due to conflicts in the eastern part of DRC,” he says.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world-famous mountain gorillas, was closed to tourists in May following rising instability and violence in the country.
Conservation vs revenues
Nondoh says if the target was conservation of the gorillas, then the move was fine on the part of the government and conservation stakeholders. But the academic is quick to add that for the country to gain much from the mountain gorillas, the fees should be decreased to accommodate low-end tourists who also want to see the gorillas.
He adds that the more tourists come to Rwanda to trek the gorillas, the more they’re going to spend in the country on other things like accommodation, food and souvenirs, which subsequently promotes sustainable tourism.
Nondoh advises that with this increment, tour operators should diversify to include other activities like modern farming techniques, cultural tourism and agro-forestry to attract tourists to the country.
In an interview with The EastAfrican, Patrick Kwizera, the director of Fine Safaris Africa, said the increment has affected their business since many tourists are now shunning Rwanda and travelling to Uganda to trek the gorillas.
“There are increasingly more tourists who come to Rwanda but drive to Uganda for gorilla trekking… The roads in Uganda where the gorilla trekking takes place are not good and so we incur extra costs,” Kwizera told The EastAfrican.
He also said ferrying tourists to Uganda sees them incur costs such as the $20 paid to Uganda Revenue Authority, $30 for COMESA insurance, as well as fuel charges, which can all end up raising their holiday package quotation by 10 to 20 per cent.
“Budget tourists like students have been pushed out of these packages because of the high cost, yet they were the majority of our clients,” Kwizera told The EastAfrican.
He said majority of the tourists who now come to see gorillas in Rwanda are mostly those who are 45 years and above.
Mercy Wanjau, the operations manager at Amahoro Tours, says there has been a significant reduction in the number of tourists visiting Rwanda. As the number of her clients who apply for Ugandan gorilla permits significantly increased, the ones for Rwanda reduced, Wanjau said.
“The increase put off even those tourists who used to come to Rwanda for other attractions and we are seeing a significant decrease in revenues,” said Wanjau.
She added that even though the move could be good for conservation efforts, it’s bad for business.
Operators say that the only advantage Rwanda has over Uganda is that tourists can even arrive in the morning, track gorillas and fly back in the evening simply because it is only 2 and half hour’s drive from Kigali International Airport to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, home to the gorillas.
In Uganda, however, it takes between 8-9 hours to drive from Entebbe International Airport to Bwindi Forest National Park or Mghinga National Park, where the gorillas reside.
Kabiza Wilderness Safaris, a tour operator in both Uganda and Rwanda, said in a statement that out of the 10 permit requests they get, nine are usually for Uganda.
However, they said as a player in the tourism sector, the company understands the rationale for increasing the price of gorilla permits from a conservation standpoint.
RDB said in a statement that it is “in constant dialogue with tour operators to ensure that visitors to Rwanda are able to enjoy not just the gorilla trekking experience, but also the diverse tourist attractions in the country.”
By Joseph Ondiek