Rwanda is a strikingly beautiful country in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Mention Rwanda and many people around the world still think back to the horrific events of the 1994 genocide, but more than 25 years on, travel has opened up to this safe and glorious land. Rwanda’s jaw-dropping mountainscapes include the volcanic Virungas, one of the last remaining habitats of the mighty mountain gorilla. Despite coping extremely well with Covid-19, Rwanda has faced a unique challenge in protecting its vulnerable gorilla population – as well as its human one. We chatted with Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwanda Development Board, to learn more about the country’s experience of coronavirus.
In conversation with Belise
Belise Kariza – Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwanda Development Board
Q: Rwanda responded extremely effectively to Covid-19, with an extensive testing programme keeping deaths to around ten. What has Rwanda’s experience been like and is there a sense of pride in how the population has reacted?
A:Rwanda has a population of 12 million people and since reporting our first Covid-19 case in mid-March, we have recorded 3089 cases and sadly, twelve deaths. Our government was quick to respond to the pandemic and take action, vowing to identify every coronavirus case and implementing stringent lockdown measures. We quickly mobilized community healthcare workers, governmental institutions and college students to work as contact tracers, set up national and regional command posts to track cases and even used robots in our Covid-19 clinics to take patients' temperatures and deliver supplies. Anyone who tests positive is immediately quarantined at a dedicated Covid-19 clinic and any contacts of that case who are deemed at high risk are also quarantined, either at a clinic or at home, until they can be tested.
We are very proud of the Rwandan people who have been extremely patient, supportive and cooperative in response to measures laid out by the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, the arm of the Ministry of Health in charge of responding to the pandemic. We understand the importance of these measures and have followed guidelines around social distancing, wearing masks, hand washing, being tested regularly and self-isolating when required.
Q: Rwanda is famous for its wildlife – including its mountain gorillas, who share a staggering 98% of their DNA with humans. This makes them susceptible to contracting human diseases. How has the country protected its gorilla population from coronavirus?
A: The Covid-19 pandemic presents a very real challenge for protecting gorillas as they are so closely related to humans and so it is important for Rwanda to play its part in ensuring the continued survival of this iconic species. Rwanda has the second largest number of mountain gorillas in the world and the revenue generated from gorilla permits, which includes national park entrance fees, funds the protection of the gorillas and their habitat. So, when the national parks reopened in June, it was important to revise our existing safety measures to ensure their protection. Personal protective equipment for staff interacting with habituated gorilla groups was immediately introduced and rangers and vets are tested for coronavirus every two weeks and kept in isolation between tests to minimize risks. For gorilla trekking activities specifically, the distance from which visitors can view the gorillas has been increased from seven to ten metres while group sizes for gorilla treks have been reduced from eight to six people to ensure effective social distancing can be practiced when viewing the gorillas.
Q: How has Rwanda’s wildlife been affected by coronavirus more generally?
A: When the national parks were closed during lockdown, essential monitoring was maintained to track the health of wildlife populations during the pandemic, enabling a swift response to any possible disease outbreak. It was heart-warming to see the dedication of our rangers to wildlife protection, many of whom isolated away from their families in order to protect our wildlife and reduce the risk of exposure. Alongside keeping our wildlife safe, additional support was also put in place for extended patrol efforts to cover the gorilla nests overnight, to counter the increased risk of poaching.
To ensure the safety of all people visiting Rwanda’s national parks and our wildlife, domestic visitors are now required to test negative for Covid-19 72 hours prior to visiting all national parks, while all visitors to our national parks are required to complete a guest registration and indemnity form in advance of their visit and submit the form electronically to the park. All staff and visitors are also required to wear masks and adhere to the Covid-19 prevention measures in place at all times.
We are pleased that all tourism activities, including primate trekking within Rwanda’s national parks, have now resumed in line with enhanced Covid-19 prevention measures and look forward to welcoming visitors looking to experience our spectacular wildlife.
Q: Rwanda reopened to international tourism on 1 August, with the resumption of commercial flights. Where do you imagine travellers will return to first?
A: As travellers look to no longer hold off on that dream trip of a lifetime and seize their bucket list, destinations such as Volcanoes National Park will no doubt be the top of the list for visitors to Rwanda.
Together with the private sector, the Rwanda Development Board is offering attractive all-inclusive tourism packages for visitors. These packages have been designed to showcase Rwanda’s remarkable leisure and recreational experiences from adventures in the mountains, to memorable excursions in serene landscapes, as well as offer a taste of our lively cities.
These special offers can be found at Visit Rwanda and are valid until 31 December 2020.
Q: What new measures are being implemented across the country to keep Rwandans and their tourists safe? What new rules will travellers have to follow?
A: The wellbeing of all travellers is Rwanda’s top priority and the country has put in place robust health and safety guidelines to ensure this. All passengers, including those in transit through Rwanda, are required to follow health and safety requirements including providing proof of a negative Covid-19 test from a certified laboratory, taken within 120 hours of arriving in Rwanda, on arrival. For passengers entering Rwanda, a second test will be conducted upon arrival, with results delivered within 24 hours – during which time travellers are required to self-quarantine in designated accommodation.
Q: Rwanda has received the World Travel & Tourism Council’s global safety stamp. What exactly does this mean?
A: Rwanda is honoured to be among the latest destinations to receive the world’s first-ever global safety and hygiene stamp, launched recently by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). The safety stamp is a form of accreditation which recognizes the efficiency of the global standardized health and hygiene protocols Rwanda has adopted, protocols that are specifically based on guidelines laid out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Following Rwanda’s reopening to international tourism on 1 August 2020, we have been proud to receive this safety and hygiene stamp to demonstrate that Rwanda meets these global standards, which are essential for re-establishing traveller confidence.
Q: Can you recommend some great places to visit in Rwanda for returning travellers?
A: The opportunity to observe endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the recent arrival of Singita Kwitonda Lodge and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest on the edge of Volcanoes National Park makes seeing the gorillas even more special.
Beyond our most popular national park, we’d also recommend visitors experience our newest national park, Gishwati-Mukura, which opened to tourism activities this year and is a symbol of Rwanda’s immense strides in conservation. Gishwati is one of the most stunning areas in the country, where visitors will find undulating hills and idyllic tea plantations which dot the edges of the reserve. The opening of the park follows the passing of a law in 2015 to create a new national park combining the Mukura and Gishwati forests. The newly created Gishwati-Mukura National Park gives both these areas official protected status. It is also one of the best spots for birdwatching in Rwanda, with 232 species spotted at Gishwati and 163 species sighted in Mukura, and not far from the spectacular Nyungwe National Park, which is home to thirteen primate species include chimpanzees.
For those looking for a more traditional safari experience, the relatively warm and low-lying plains of Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda comprise savannah, woodland, wetland and a dozen lakes which makes for ideal game viewing. Wildlife species that can be seen here include lions, eastern black rhinos, buffalo, elephant, antelope, zebra, giraffe, baboons and an incredible 490 different bird species. A boat trip on Lake Ihema is also a highlight of any visit to Akagera, with its large pods of hippos, Nile crocodiles and abundant water birds who inhabit the island in the middle of the lake.
No visit to Rwanda would be complete without exploring our capital city Kigali, which was founded as an administrative outpost in 1907 and became the capital at independence in 1962. The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a powerful educational experience for visitors which, through education and peacebuilding, honours the memory of and pays tribute to the more than one million Rwandans killed in 1994. Visitors can also stroll down the city’s wide tree-lined boulevards and discover its burgeoning art scene, as well as a growing number of dining options. The Kigali Cultural Village also offers a dedicated space for local artisans and food vendors to exhibit and trade their goods.
Part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Lake Kivu in the west of Rwanda is also a must! Rwanda’s largest lake (and the sixth largest in Africa) is surrounded by magnificent mountains, while its deep emerald green waters cover an area of over 2700 kilometres squared. On the lake’s northern shore lies Rubavu, once a popular colonial beach resort, its waterfront lined with old mansions, hotels and trendy bars ideal for sundowner cocktails after a day spent gorilla trekking. It is from Rubavu that the famous Congo Nile Trail extends south for 227km through breath-taking hills and mountains beside the lake all the way to Rusizi. For the more adventurous traveller, a kayaking tour on Lake Kivu, or mountain biking or hiking one of the six off-the-beaten-path stages of the Congo Nile Trail is worth the spectacular views!
Q: What messages would you like Rwandans and their visitors to take forwards into the future? What can coronavirus teach us? Can we work towards a brighter future?
A: Rwanda’s tourism industry is adapting to create a safe environment for travellers and operators, in order to thrive in these unprecedented times. While the pandemic has taught us about the importance of cooperation with our communities to combat the spread of the virus, it has also reminded us of the power of travel as a force for good in protecting wildlife, supporting local communities and sharing educational and memorable experiences.
We therefore encourage all travel enthusiasts and avid explorers to take advantage of this unique opportunity to venture out and experience the beauty of nature and the adventures that await them in our “Land of a Thousand Hills”.
Top image: A baby gorila inside the Virunga National Park © LMspencer/Shutterstock