Attracted in part by gorilla-viewing opportunities, a growing number of tourists visited Rwanda in the 1980s. By 1990, approximately 22,000 people visited Rwanda’s three national parks. That was the peak before a steep downturn, however. Between 1994 and 1998, civil war, genocide, and intermittent periods of unrest brought tourism to a halt. Aside from the stigma of the genocide, gorillas in the Virunga Mountains were severely threatened by conversion of their habitat to agricultural use and extraction of their resources for other mammals. Illegal hunting and trafficking by local communities further threatened the gorilla population.
The number of tourists visiting Rwanda’s national parks has increased exponentially over the past decade, from 417 in 1999 to 43,000 in 2008
Starting in 1994, the government of Rwanda put considerable effort into developing a clear tourism strategy. With private sector and UN input, the government successfully drafted a tourism strategy focusing on high-end tourism with conservation at the core of its plan. The strategy also outlined the need for diversification of tourism to international conferencing, birding, and other animals. An international marketing campaign was launched to improve the image of the country abroad, while a domestic campaign aimed to increase local acceptance of tourists. Several market-based reforms were also adopted—namely, near-complete privatization of the hotel and leisure sector.
The tourism industry has emerged as Rwanda’s top foreign currency earner and export sector, ahead of the coffee and tea sectors. Tourism accounted for 23 percent of total exports over 2005–08, while coffee and tea were 11 percent and 8 percent, respectively, versus 37 percent and 11 percent a decade earlier. The number of visitors to Rwanda’s national parks has increased exponentially—from 417 in 1999 to 43,000 in 2008. The revival of tourism has also expanded employment opportunities Rwandans, and a revenue-sharing program instituted in 2005 is injecting 5 percent of tourism revenues from national park fees into local community projects. /p>
One of the most important lessons of Rwanda’s tourism strategy work is the need for a flexible capacity framework. On one hand, empowerment of partners will be constrained where appropriate powers are not devolved to them. On the other, it is impossible to impose powers on those who feel neither capable nor inclined to exercise them. Rwanda’s case also points to the importance of committed, open dialogue between the public and private sectors. Additionally, it is clear that gorilla conservation must be balanced with research visits and tourism trips to ensure that the health of gorillas and the integrity of their habitat are maintained.