Kigali, Rwanda July 26th, 2011 Originally published:
Last Wednesday, at some ungodly time in the morning, I dragged myself out of the seductively comfortable bed in a quiet lodge in the Musanze district in Rwanda’s North Province. Staring blankly at the woven mat at my feet while trying groggily to remember where I stashed my hiking shoes, I thought to myself, “Alyssa, I know you really wanted to see the gorillas, but seriously, 5:45 a.m.? How impressive can they really be?”
Turns out, pretty damn impressive.
But if I just wanted a trip into the jungle I could have done the same thing as most of the other trekkers in our group: fly into Kigali, stay in nice hotel, buy souvenir art from curio shop, see gorillas, post Facebook photo of you with gorillas, fly out.
Aside from nearly being mauled by a silverback, the trip gave me the opportunity to think a bit more critically about tourism in Rwanda and how Western tourists view it.
Capitalizing on the natural assets of the country, tourism has grown to become Rwanda’s highest income generator. The Rwanda Development Board estimates the country’s economy saw $59-million in tourism revenue just from July to September of 2010.
However, as our shiny four-by-four passed impoverished rural villages on the way to gorilla territory, I wondered who was actually seeing that money.
At the base of our two-hour uphill climb several members of our group hired porters – local men who followed us through the jungle carrying backpacks and heavy camera equipment. I don’t even like letting our cook wash my dirty dishes back in Kigali and having intentionally packed light, I politely declined.
“You should really take a porter,” one woman from Australia told us enthusiastically. “It helps the local economy!”
For a large portion of our ensuing hike I thought about this statement. While mostly likely true in the case of the porters, it seemed to me that saying something helps the local economy is a go-to phrase for tourists who don’t want to feel like they’re being exploitative.
I’ve certainly used it. In fact, the night before the trek I was confronted with an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness when a troop of children arrived at our lodge to perform traditional dances for the guests – who at that time consisted of just us three Canadian interns. While beautiful, I couldn’t help but feel that catering to tourists wasn’t representative of modern Rwandan culture. Were we, as outsiders, exploiting local traditions that we would never quite understand? I wondered how much this kind of cultural activity actually contributes to local well being in rural Rwanda.
According to a report by SNV, the Netherlands Development Organization, it’s quite a bit. The organization highlights the concept of pro-poor tourism, or tourism that benefits not only high-end hotels and tour companies. With a large skills gap (only 30 per cent of every hundred job openings can actually be filled with skilled Rwandans), wildlife, scenery and culture are natural assets that Rwandans take economic advantage of, even if they have few financial resources.
In fact, according to SNV encouraging elements of cultural tourism – traditional dancing, community tours or visits to rural farms – can double pro-poor income for every night spent by a tourist in the country.
I gathered from the SNV report that pro-poor tourism is still a concept that needs work in Rwanda. Working to increase the quality and diversity of locally owned tourism enterprises and improving the links between larger hospitality providers and rural communities with accessible natural capital (local fruits and vegetables, cultural productions, etc.) would help make sure the benefits of the tourism industry are spread throughout the country.