Taking a leaf from Botswana’s playbook of high-value, low-impact tourism, Rwanda has introduced a policy of looking at eco-tourism and conservation as an economic development strategy by creating and expanding national parks together with private sector partners, said the country’s Development Board.

“Private conservation brands align with our conservation strategy, especially when it comes to increasing the habitat for the endangered mountain gorillas and rehabilitating our national parks,” said Head of Communications of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), Sunny Ntayombya.

He said the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park were a key attraction and a prime example of the high-value low-impact strategy. “Only eight tracking permits are issued per troupe per day, meaning the encounter is as intimate and as unobtrusive as possible,” highlighted Ntayombya, adding that with only 96 permits available each day in Rwanda, and only one hour allocated to each group, the encounters are as low impact as possible.

“A percentage (10%) of the revenue from the permits is channelled towards local communities, to build schools and health centres, as well as roads. There is a compensation fund for local farmers should any gorillas damage their crops, which helps to ensure peaceful co-existence.” He said gorilla tracking also provided employment for many locals, from rangers and trackers to porters, drivers and staff at tourist lodges.

In 2018, Rwanda hosted 1.7 million visitors. Visitor arrivals increased by 8% compared with 2017, according to Ntayombya, who highlighted that overall park revenues reached over $21.1 million in 2018.

“Rwanda's tourism revenues grew by over 100% over the past decade and Rwanda is today earning hundreds of millions of dollars every year from tourism. Over a million tourists visited Rwanda last year. Who could have imagined that 25 years ago?”

Following recent private-sector investment by groups such as Wilderness, Singita and One&Only, the Rwandan government also plans to reinvest in the park by buying more land, which will increase the gorillas’ habitat and thus their numbers.

Luke Bailes, Founder and Executive Chairman of Singita, told Tourism Update that the group opened two properties on the edge of Volcanoes National Park on August 1, Singita Kwitonda Lodge and a four-bedroom villa, Kataza House, which extends its conservation footprint to Rwanda.

“Both lodges were built from scratch, so we had the opportunity to think deeply about all aspects – making it one of the most sustainable lodges in our collection. Everything we did kept this ‘light footprint’ in mind,” he said.

Bailes pointed out that Singita had established a nursery, Akarabo, about 12 to 18 months prior to opening and, to date, has planted 250 000 indigenous trees and shrubs as part of an ambitious reforestation plan for Volcanoes National Park.

He said luxury safaris attracted visitors who were willing to pay a premium for unspoiled nature. “The rates sustain a low density of visitors, offering guests an almost private experience. We currently have over 400 000 hectares of land under our care, yet we operate low guest densities with a smaller impact.”