Rwanda is a landlocked country located in East Africa bordered by DRC, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. The country’s tourism industry relies a lot on nature especially wildlife with the leading tourist attraction being the mountain gorillas. Other tourist attractions in Rwanda include golden monkeys, chimpanzee, birds, Lake Kivu and wildlife of Akagera national park.
In the whole world mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Massifs shared by Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. In Rwanda, mountain gorillas are found in Volcanoes National Park in Musanze district-Northern Province. The park can be accessed by car within 2 hours from Kigali International Airport.
Since the end of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has strategized on developing its tourism industry by creating an enabling environment such as tarmac roads, tourist hotel facilities and customer services, setting up community development projects and increasing tourist security.
Perhaps Rwanda is perceived as a safe tourist destination due to its marketing and promotion using mountain gorillas as their icon tourist attraction in the major international travel Medias such as CNN Travel and tourism trade fairs like the ITB Berlin. This has resulted into positive coverage compelling many travelers to visit the nation.
In addition to the gorilla naming ceremony which takes place every year has evolved since 2005 to unite international tourist with local communities and nature. The naming ceremony is usually used as a platform to market local tourism products. Many exhibits feature traditional dances, music and drama where locals perform poems and songs approving the benefits of gorilla tourism on their livelihoods.
The initiation of gorilla tourism project can be traced back in the 1970’s with strict environmental rules set in the name of ecotourism that allowed few tourists to visit gorillas in their natural habitat. Prior to the gorilla project, Dian Fossey had pioneered gorilla conservation when she established a research centre in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda. Her legacy has continued through the symbolic Dian Fossey grave site and the gorilla fund international.
With eco tourism local communities were restricted from accessing the forest which did not stop the threat of human activities on the life of the critically endangered mountain gorillas due to high population densities surrounding gorilla habitats.
Local communities continued to compete for resources as they hunt animals, encroach on the forest despite strict conservation to meet their daily life needs such as food and income. As a result there was a need to address local community welfare in order to reduce challenges to gorilla tourism and conservation which were mainly human-wildlife conflicts and poverty related.
That gave birth to a foundation for local community development strategy by the Rwandan government. The strategy also included diversification of tourism products beyond gorillas where by traditional life styles and heritage in form of food, arts, handicrafts industry, architecture and festivals were promoted as tourism products.
The promotion of local community tourism as a result of gorilla tourism has increased the attractiveness of volcanoes national park as a tourism destination as well as increasing tourist experience. This is evidenced by more than 20,000 tourists who visit the country every year mainly for gorilla tracking.
To strengthen conservation of gorillas, there was need to labor. The Rwandan development board created employment opportunities for local communities working in Volcanoes National Park as guides, rangers, porters and community conservation leaders which have uplifted their wellbeing.
The government also initiated a revenue sharing scheme in 2005 where by 5 percent of the money from gorilla tourism goes into the communities creating several social and income generating benefits. Some of the projects set up include schools, health care centers, roads, water tanks as well as tree planting which saves the environment and income generating activities like bee keeping, craft making and vegetable growing. These make people own the gorillas and the park resources indirectly.
Some of the community projects that came as a result of gorilla tourism offer tourist services such as accommodation, food stuffs, cultural and traditional activities. This gives tourists an understanding to appreciate culture and life styles of Rwandan local people such as arts and the landscapes. The community owned Sabinyo Community Lodge provides accommodation to tourists as well as provide market for local food and arts.
Another remarkable benefit from gorilla tourism is the Iby’ Iwacu cultural village near Volcanoes National Park, tourists visiting this village will enjoy staying in a traditional hut on a full board basis, taste local food, like the dress codes and also learn the history of Rwandan people which presents an authentic cultural experience.
While staying at the Iby Iwacu village, you will experience Rwandan culture by paying for activities such as community walks where you meet and interact with people who left poaching, participate in traditional dance and music featuring songs of gorillas, learn how local food and banana beer is prepared. This has increased the attractiveness and competitiveness of Volcanoes National Park beyond gorilla tourism.
In the area of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park where gorilla tourism is based, there are local communities living around the forest. Historically people lived in harmony with gorillas and other wildlife including the forest dwelling Batwa pygmies in the Virunga rainforests who were later displaced during creation of Volcanoes National Park and some parts of Nyungwe forest National Park.
Batwa pygmies were left homeless and marginalized as they could no longer practice their traditions which included hunting, dressing styles, fruit gathering and traditional healing. Fortunately the benefits of gorilla tourism through the gorilla organization in 2001 reached out to uplift the Batwa by providing land, agricultural training and education in an attempt to preserve their unique culture.
The gorilla organization centered on preserving unique traditions of Batwa, tourists who come for gorilla tracking in Volcanoes National Park also visit the Batwa at Iby’ Iwacu cultural village to learn how they used their traditions.
Tourists pay a fair price to get involved in Batwa activities such as hunting techniques, traditional healing, fire making, Batwa dances which give tourists a unique experience. This participatory approach in tourism has raised income levels for the Batwa and other local communities as a motive for conservation of mountain gorillas.
Revenues from gorilla tourism have also acted as an incentive for local communities to support conservation of mountain gorillas. Community projects such as goat, pig rearing and bee keeping not only create income but also act as alternatives for bush meat and wild honey which has reduced poaching and encroachment on the gorilla habitat.
Consequently with reduction in poaching and encroachment, gorilla population in Rwanda has increased as well as the neighboring Uganda. This is attributed to strong collaboration between local communities and the various methods used in conservation such as trans-boundary management, anti-poaching and ranger based monitoring systems.
Therefore the successful conservation of mountain gorillas has been partly due to positive attitudes of local communities living around gorilla national parks who have lived for long with the gorillas. Today gorillas co-exist with local communities and have become one of the greatest conservation stories in Africa.