Shedding its image of being a country beset by strife and conflict, Rwanda is looking to the future with renewed vigour by attracting business and leisure travellers through attractive policies while also positioning itself as a hub in East Africa. Demola Ojo was in Kigali…
If you haven’t been to Rwanda, it might be forgivable if the impression you have of the East African country is that of one still reeling from the effects of the infamous genocide that took place there 20 years ago. During those dark days, about one million lost their lives in a three-month killing spree.
It is a pleasant surprise however, that the present reality is that of a nation not only at peace, but one with great aspirations of being a leading business and leisure destination in East Africa in particular and the African continent in general.
These are tall dreams for a landlocked country with few natural resources. The spirit of the average Rwandan though is one of resilience, hope and belief in a bright future. This has helped the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ see setbacks as opportunities. For example, despite the disadvantage of being encircled by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – thus leaving it with no access to the sea – Rwanda sees it as an opportunity to be a hub in the East African region and now brands itself as ‘The Heart of Africa’.
‘Remember, Unite, Renew’
Obviously, the journey hasn’t been easy and it has taken a conscious effort by the Rwandan government to bring up and exorcise the ghost of the past. At the moment, the country is in the midst of a commemoration of the genocide. It is called Kwibuka20 and exhorts Rwandans to remember, unite and renew. Many of the activities commemorating the genocide take place at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre where relatives, friends and tourists lay flowers and sing hymns in honour of the departed.
The memorial centre which was set up 10 years ago draws visitors from within and outside Rwanda and is now a tourist attraction of note. Within its walls are sad reminders of the past which serve as lessons for the future.
Other places of interest that tell visitors the story of the past include the Presidential Palace where former president Juvénal Habyarimana lived. He was killed when his plane was shot down by rebel forces on his way back from a peace meeting. Alongside him was his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Incidentally, the plane crashed into the palace where he lived. The Presidential Palace is now a museum. Among many other objects of interest is what is left of the aircraft.
Yet another reminder of those dark days twenty years ago is a museum that was once a residence. A day after President Habyarimana was killed in the plane crash, his prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was surrounded in her home by the Rwandan republican guard. Despite being protected by UN troops and Belgian soldiers, she was also killed along with her husband. The bullet holes in the building remain to this day; inside are images of the genocide; outside is a monument dedicated to the brave soldiers who died protecting her.
Tourism Key to Revival
The above instances where locations such as the Presidential Palace and the former prime minister’s home have been converted to attractions is indicative of a broader plan to make Rwanda a principally service-based economy, with tourism playing a major part. For example, Rwanda is the only country that issues visas on arrival to all Africans. It prides itself on being welcoming and investor friendly and it takes only six working hours to register a business in Rwanda.
This drive to make Rwanda a premier business and leisure destination in the region has already started recording success stories. Recently, Skytrax rated the Kigali airport as the best in East Africa and third in Africa.
The country’s national carrier, RwandAir, is also breaking new grounds, with the youngest fleet on the continent earning it the accolade of most improved airline in Africa.
The Global Competitive Index Report of 2013 reckons Rwanda is the most competitive place to do business in East Africa while the World Bank rates the Rwandan economy as the most improved in the world since 2005.
Indicative of this new investor confidence is the recent management deal struck between Europe’s oldest luxury group, Kempinski Hotels and the famous Hotel des Mille Collines, otherwise known as Hotel Rwanda. The Hotel des Mille Collines became famous after 1,268 people took refuge inside the building during 1994 genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager at that time was used as the basis of the award-winning movie, Hotel Rwanda.
Charting the Way to the Future
Apart from the unfortunate events of ’94, the name Rwanda evokes two other things; tea and coffee exports on the one hand, and a significant amount of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla populations on the other. The latter is one of Rwanda’s primary tourism assets, with gorilla tracking a major draw to Rwanda. The Rwanda Development Board, a government agency charged with fast-tracking economic development in Rwanda is however planning towards tourism beyond gorillas.
The plan is to partner with investors for more four and five-star hotels in Kigali and Rubavu, casinos and high-end restaurants in Kigali, theatres, cinemas and clubs, zoos, theme parks and aquariums, boating and water sports on lakes around the country, especially Lake Kivu, development of Lake Kivu beach and development of conferences and convention infrastructure.
These are major pillars in a grander plane set out by Rwandan President Paul Kagame dubbed Vision 2020.
Among many plans is the attempt to double GDP from $644 to $1,240 by 2017 driven by a primarily service-based economy alongside investment in agriculture, infrastructure and information and communications technology.
With the current pace of development, Rwanda is well on its way to a complete turnaround from a war torn country dependent on aid to a thriving, self-sufficient economy centred around service delivery.