It might be the hope of a mountain gorilla encounter that has lured most visitors to the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ over the years, but this is a country where whispers of a tourism boom are quickly becoming shouts, and catching a glimpse of its beautiful primates is just one of the reasons why
The canopy walk in the Nyungwe Forest
If someone asked you, “What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when I say, ‘Rwanda’?” there would be a high chance you would reply with just one word: “Gorillas”. And nobody would blame you, because along with Uganda on its northern border, close encounters of the gorilla kind have long been Rwanda’s biggest tourist drawcard, luring animal-lovers and adventure-seekers chasing their Dian Fossey moment from all across the globe.
Rwanda is, of course, also known for its devastating, blood-stained past, the genocide of 1994 still very much a part of this country’s collective consciousness today. But nearly 25 years on, the nation often called the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ and the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ is in the midst of mighty, positive change.
With a progressive president at its helm and a warm-hearted population keen to see the country thrive, prosper and be recognised for more than its tragic past, Rwanda is well and truly claiming its spot on the competitive African tourism ladder and emerging as one of the hottest destinations in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Between 2010 and 2016 Rwanda doubled its tourism revenue from $200 million to over $400 million. An estimated 1.1 million travellers are expected to have arrived in the country by the end of this year, and this number is set to grow to over 1.7 million by 2028.
But what exactly is driving this small country’s newfound popularity? For a start, the Rwandan government has successfully positioned the nation as an ideal African conference and events destination, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the country each year. Add to this the national carrier RwandAir’s expansion to include flights to six more destinations in Africa as well as flights to London, Brussels and Mumbai, and things are only looking up.
This unassuming, land-locked country is a hot bed of potential, and speaking of beds, Rwanda now has far, far more of them on offer for visitors to the country. In just over a decade Rwanda has upped its hotel room supply from 600 to 10,500 – and it’s not just any hotel opening its doors amid Rwanda’s rolling green hills.
In the country’s capital of Kigali, Marriott and Radisson Blu have each opened 200-plus-room hotels to cater to the foreign demand, but it’s Rwanda’s focus on creating a network of high-end lodges that’s the most interesting part of its tourism strategy.
One&Only Nyungwe House
Luxury eco-lodges like Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge at Volcanoes National Park, and the brand-spanking new One&Only Nyungwe House are proof that Rwanda is actively tapping into the high-net-worth traveller market that its neighbours in the region, especially Kenya, are not, and it’s working a charm for the country’s tourism sector. Seemingly out of the blue, high-value eco-travellers’, explorers’ and business travellers’ ears are pricking up as word travels about the bucket-list, adventure-style holidays on offer in Rwanda, now made all the more appealing by the reassurance of a cocoon of luxury to bunker down in at the end of a long day hiking.
Sujata Raman, Managing Director for Australia and Asia Pacific at luxury small group tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, has named Rwanda as one of her top five ‘hot’ destinations to visit in 2019.
“Wildly beautiful with lush, mountainous terrain, cloud forests and an incredible biodiversity, Rwanda is firmly on the list for high-end travellers,” she says, adding that if you aren’t convinced, you just have to look at the raft of new luxury camps and lodges in the pipeline, such as Singita Kwitonda Lodge, and Wilderness Safaris’ new addition Magashi Camp on the shores of Lake Rwanyakazinga, which will open in early 2019.
“Rwanda has emerged as one of East Africa’s newest luxury destinations, and to cater for the increased interest, A&K opened an office there early this year, allowing us to deliver the exceptional experiences our guests expect, there, as elsewhere on the continent,” Raman says.
Adding further to Rwanda’s appeal, it last year it was ranked the ninth safest country in the world by the World Economic Forum, and the safest country in all of Africa. It is also incredibly progressive with mandatory education, universal health care, and it has legislated gender equality.
“It proudly boasts the highest percentage of women in parliament anywhere in the world … and it was one of the first African countries to ban plastic bags and introduce a monthly clean-up day in every community which has helped it become Africa’s cleanest country,” says Raman. The country is also among the top three African countries in terms of internet connectivity, with an ever-growing fibre optic network, which will be music to most travellers’ ears.
So while you might find yourself touching down in this surprising country for a face-to-face with your jungle-dwelling cousins, it won’t take long to realise there are plenty of other reasons to stay put a little longer in Rwanda, starting with our list of highlights below…
Akagera National Park
Rwanda has four national parks (Volcanoes, Nyungwe, Akagera, and Gishwati) and a host of other boast-worthy natural assets including six volcanoes, 23 lakes and countless snaking rivers. Needless to say, for the nature-lovers out there, Rwanda is the stuff of dreams, and while gorilla-seekers will want to head to the Volcanos, Raman’s top pick is a visit to Akagera National Park.
Utterly different in landscape from anywhere else in the country, Akagera’s 100000 hectares is made up of green grasslands, tree-trimmed lakes, swamps, dramatic mountains and dense forest, as well as Rwanda’s last protected savannah ecosystem where you’ll find all the animals of your childhood African safari fantasies including the ‘big five’ (lion, rhino, elephant, leopard and buffalo).
Akagera is home to one of the continent’s highest hippo densities and in the neighbourhood are plenty of zebra, giraffes and antelope species. Not to mention, last year the park reintroduced ten Eastern rhinos from South Africa after ten years of extinction.
If you happen to visit Akagera in the wet season, make sure you make the side trip to Rusumo Falls – the largest waterfalls in Rwanda, on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania.
Nyungwe Forest is one of the oldest in Africa and as one of Africa’s last remaining high altitude tropical rainforests it has been rated the highest priority for forest conservation on the continent. One of the country’s most important areas of biodiversity, 13 different primate species are found there including chimpanzees, which can be tracked on a hiking journey through the forest; more than 300 bird species, as well as a host of butterflies and reptiles and over 75 different types of mammal. This area also has several tea plantations next to the rainforest with beautiful scenery, like the site of the new One&Only Nyungwe House.
Hiking enthusiasts will revel in the lush landscape’s well-maintained trails such as the Imbaraga and Umuyove, and you won’t want to miss the famous 200-metre-long canopy walk that is suspended above a ravine, giving explorers a different perspective of this impressive landscape, ancient treetops and its inhabitants.
“Wildly beautiful with lush, mountainous terrain, cloud forests and an incredible biodiversity, Rwanda is firmly on the list for high-end travellers” – Sujata Raman, Abercrombie & Kent
In Rwanda’s clean, safe and friendly capital of Kigali you’ll find living examples of thriving, modern-day Africa, such as a contemporary new convention centre, a handful of skyscrapers, and even a glimmer of a night life, side-by-side with historic, cultural traditions.
Get amongst the energy of Rwanda’s capital and explore its colourful markets and spice-scented street stalls, and pick up some Rwandan handicrafts in the bazaars. But be sure to also visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the grand presidential palace, all pivotal monuments to Rwanda’s history.
Kigali is burgeoning as a cultural and artistic hub, and with its position right in the middle of Rwanda, among the country’s trademark rolling hilltops no less, it makes the perfect starting point for a Rwandan adventure.
Who says Rwanda doesn’t do resorts? The lakeside resort town of Karongi is considered one of the most relaxing and romantic places in Rwanda, found on the shores of tropical Lake Kivu, which, at a whopping 2,700 km is one of the 20 largest lakes in the world. This is where to go for a relaxing day in nature when you’re all hiked out and you figure your gorilla friends could use a break from human eyes.
Flanked by impressive mountains, Lake Kivu’s clean and clear waters mirror the colour the country is known for – deep green – and it is a popular spot for water sports such as kayaking, boating, swimming and fishing. There are even hot springs and some sandy beaches, and the steep hills of the Rubona Peninsula will grant you a glimpse of authentic, local life, charming homesteads and verdant gardens.
If you’re a hiker, you’ll no doubt end up at Lake Kivu thanks to its proximity to the Congo-Nile Trail. This is one of those hikes where the effort will not go unrewarded, thanks to this trail’s spectacular vistas, lush vegetation and those quintessential rolling hills and mountains. You can also visit the Congo Nile Divide watershed, have a taste of the ‘crop to cup’ coffee and tea experiences within the local community, or visit the moving Bisesero Genocide Memorial with breathtaking views of the lake.
For more memorable vistas of Lake Kivu, visit the sleepy town of Cyangugu, and be sure to visit Gishwati Forest, one of the most impressive sites in Rwanda with over 1450 species of bird.
Rwandan women selling eggs in the Kimironko
market in Rwanda's capital of Kigali
For the die-hard hiker, active volcano Mount Bisoke in the Volcanoes National Park is a must. Situated on the border of The Democratic Republic of Congo, a return trek up to Bisoke takes six to seven hours, and it’s a hike for the more experienced as it can be a little steep at times. At the summit you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful panorama of the crater lake, and on the way back down you can follow a track for views of the Parc National des Virungas. For more of a challenge, there’s Mount Karisimbi at 4507 metres high, which takes two days to conquer.
And lastly, we don’t have the heart to leave them out…
You know what else The Volcanoes National Park has? Mountain Gorillas. Surprise! Rwanda’s population of these critically endangered primates makes up more than a third of the 880 remaining worldwide, so it’s no wonder they are such a tourist drawcard. We have Dian Fossey to thank for educating the world about this beautiful mammal in the 70s and 80s, and since her death eco-tourism has been promoted as the best way to conserve and protect the vulnerable species from extinction.
While you’re in the Volcanoes National Park, it’s worth checking in with your human counterparts, too. The cultural Gorilla Guardians Village is a place where visitors get to experience Rwandan village life by grinding seeds, firing bows and arrows, taking part in a traditional intore dance and even partaking in the marriage of a king to his queen. It might sound a little cheesy and staged, but it’s a fun and unique experience to complement a few hours spent with gorillas, and the money goes straight to the local communities.