KIGALI, Rwanda

Rwanda’s tour operators are looking to domestic tourists to loosen the strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rwanda generated $498 million in tourism revenues in 2019, but the coronavirus lockdown grounded those activities.

After registering the first coronavirus case in March, Rwanda swiftly banned tourism and hospitality activities.

The G-Step Tour Company was one of the leading tour operators in the country before the pandemic.

But in the ensuing months business has been tough with canceled trips and no visitors, Andrew Gatera, company owner told Anadolu Agency.

“Business was hit; from almost the end of last December most of our tour vehicles were parked. Until June when tourism activities resumed our tour vehicles had last gone to the park with tourists in February,” he said. “Business was abnormally low as tourists were no longer flying in. Business dwindled to about 10% of what we used to work.”

Domestic tourism raises optimism

Gatera regained optimism in June when the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the country’s tourism regulator, announced reopening of activities to domestic tourists and visitors traveling by charter flights — before the government reopened airports to commercial flights in August.

The agency encouraged Rwandans to visit main tourist attractions, introducing special packages for groups, families and companies on products for domestic tourists visiting volcanoes and Nyungwe National Parks.

In the same month, RDB slashed gorilla permits from $1,500 uniform price to $200 for Rwandans and East African Community nationals residing in Rwanda, and $500 for foreign residents as part of promotional efforts to encourage domestic tourists.

“The domestic tourism promotion was particularly important and its impact was felt as local residents showed enthusiasm in touring. Groups of locals travelled to national parks such as Akagera and Nyungwe National Parks. And the sectors players were busy, it was really a positive,” said Gatera.

Previously, Gatera’s customers were mainly foreign tourists.

Although business was not the same as before the pandemic, Gatera said with the domestic tourism promotion he received several bookings.

Domestic tourists hailed

In a message marking Rwanda’s annual gorilla naming ceremony Thursday, President Paul Kagame expressed appreciation for domestic tourists.

“We were pleased to see so many Rwandan families and residents of Rwanda take the opportunity to enjoy domestic tourism. I hope this will continue, even as our guests from abroad travel here to discover our country’s attractions,” he said.

At least 24 baby gorillas were named in a virtual ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rwanda Development Board chief executive Clare Akamanzi urged domestic tourists to take advantage of special packages to visit the main tourist attractions.

She said the government put in place different programs to help the sector recover from the pandemic.

Besides its capacity to create jobs and reduce poverty, experts believe the sector presents immense opportunities for all-inclusive growth.

Rwanda has created a conducive environment for tourism to flourish through infrastructure development by relaxing tourism visas and marketing itself as a tourism destination.

COVID remains an obstacle

A brief rise in business in the months after tourism resumption has been dented by the same obstacle– coronavirus tests, according to Gatera.

The interest of domestic tourists dwindled recently after the government abolished free COVID-19 testing for those intending to tour, he said.

Everyone wanting to tour has to foot their own test at a cost of $50.

In addition, curfews also spelled a doom to domestic tourism, according to Gatera.

Rwanda maintains a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5.a.m. local time.

Curfew hours were initially from 7 p.m before it was revised to 9 p.m.

“The COVID-19 restrictions and domestic tourism promotion were kind of clashing,” said Gatera.

Lessons learned

Gatera said in terms of working, the pandemic has changed the mindsets of tourism operators.

“In a positive way actually, we have learned that the domestic market is as important as the international market. We had to go back to the drawing board to start innovating, introducing a few packages and developing our online booking system. So we are trying to use different strategies to attract travelers on the local market,” he said.

He said companies have introduced online tour agents who can promote tourism and get paid on a commission basis.

According to Oscar Kimanuka, a Rwanda-based analyst, domestic tourism can be used to stabilize cyclical and seasonal flows of inbound tourists.

When developed in a meaningful way, domestic tourism can sustainably complement international tourism with year-round tourism economic growth and development, he says.

Rwanda lost $10 million, or 10% of estimated revenues in 2020, after about 20 conferences scheduled between March and April were cancelled, according to official figures.

Revenues from foreign visitors dropped 35% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year.

In July, the Rwanda Convention Bureau announced the resumption of meetings and conferences in an attempt to revive tourism and hospitality sectors and key foreign exchange contributors.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, domestic tourism is a key driver of the tourism sector globally.

In recent years, the Rwanda Development Board launched a campaign dubbed, “Tembera u Rwanda,” to encourage Rwandans and foreign residents to explore the country.

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