Biodiversity makes a substantial and direct contribution to the Rwandan economy through eco-tourism. Rwanda’s eco-tourism industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and has shown significant potential for future growth.
According to Rwanda’s Fifth National Report (5NR) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and its State of the Environment and Outlook Report 2015, Rwanda’s tourism activities are concentrated in protected areas, particularly in its national parks. The tourism sector fetched USD $438 million in revenues in 2017, up from USD $404 million in the previous year.
This best practice highlights the key policies and programs introduced by the government of Rwanda to harness its eco-tourism industry for socio-economic and ecological benefits, particularly for local communities living around protected areas and nature reserves.
Some of the key lessons learned include:
- National level policies and programs which promote eco-tourism are vital;
- Private sector engagement can bring funding, expertise and innovation to the tourism sector;
- Enhancing transboundary biodiversity management can support landscape level conservation;
- Revenue-sharing schemes, which fund socio-economic activities benefiting local communities living around the national parks, are vital for sustainable development; and
- Tourism is a cross-cutting industry, capable of achieving several U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both by contributing to biodiversity conservation, and by developing a green economy and stimulating trade.
Biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation have been two major challenges for Rwanda. Rwanda’s tourism development, mostly nature-based, can be a key source of development, poverty alleviation and employment.
Rwanda's key assets such as protected areas, national parks and nature reserves can be sustainably optimized to support eco-tourism efforts. Gorilla-watching is the most well-known tourism activity in Rwanda.
In addition to conserving biodiversity, eco-tourism also helps in greening the economy through urban and rural employment, circulating cash in other sectors, and raising awareness on the importance of biodiversity conservation among communities and tourists to preserve natural and cultural heritage.
Some of the most potential protected areas in Rwanda, which are capable of generating ecological, economic and financial benefits include: Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National park, Nyungwe National Park, among others.
Rwanda’s latest post-2010 National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) lays down several national targets, which are relevant to developing a flourishing eco-tourism sector. These include:
- Target 1, by 2020, seeks to make the Rwandan people aware of the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and provide concrete steps for sustainable use thereof.
- Target 10, by 2020, seeks to prevent the extinction of threatened species, and improve their conservation status.
- Target 9, by 2020, seeks to protect at least 10.3 per cent of land area rich in biodiversity and ecosystem services.
- Target 13, by 2020, seeks to restore and safeguard all ecosystems that provide essential services to human well-being and contribute to health and livelihoods of local communities.
Some of the key actions undertaken by the Government of Rwanda, to advance and improve its eco-tourism industry include:
- Eco-tourism activities. Several improvements have been made, and new activities have been introduced, to enhance the eco-tourism experience in Rwanda. These include: birding, Nile trails, tracking chimpanzees, improvement of facilities and infrastructure, responsive customer care, and marketing Rwanda as an exciting tourism destination in international exhibitions and fairs. Some private tour operators also offer community-based tourism activities, such as stays with a local family, village walks, banana beer production or volunteering opportunities (Birdlife International, 2011).
Additionally, the government has reintroduced extinct species such as rhinos and lions in national parks, in order to revitalize park resources.
- National Legislation and Policy: Over the years, Rwanda has undertaken several legislative and policy measures to create an environment suitable for a thriving sustainable eco-tourism industry. These include: Biodiversity Policy 2011, Biodiversity Law 2013, Rwanda Vision 2020 Development Strategy, Rwanda Wildlife Policy (2013), Rwanda Protected Areas Concessions Management Policy (2013), National Industrial Policy (2011), National Strategy for Climate Change and Low Carbon Development (2011), and Rwanda Tourism Policy (2009).
The Protected Areas Concessions Management Policy, and the Rwanda Tourism Policy both seek to encourage private sector’s financial and technical investment in protected areas, in order to boost revenues from eco-tourism. Tourism concession policies in protected areas regulate the development and management of lodging facilities and other infrastructures owned by the private sectors, and promote, for example, the use of eco-friendly and locally made products.
- Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC): GVTC brings together Rwanda, Uganda, and the DR Congo for the purpose of conservation and management of the mountain gorilla populations and their habitat. GVTC is a strategic management system for the Greater Virunga landscape. Through trans-boundary and collaborative mechanisms, GVTC addresses both conservation and socio-economic issues, in a landscape defined by ecosystems rather than administrative boundaries.
- Revenue-sharing Program: The government in several national parks, such as Nyungwe National Park and Volcanoes National Park, is allocating a certain percentage of the income generated from eco-tourism, to fund socio-economic activities which benefit local communities living around the national parks.
- Promoting Sustainable Livelihoods: Ecotourism is also providing sustainable livelihoods to local people, for example, instead of felling trees in the Nyungwe National Park, which is the traditional way to harvest honey from natural beehives, local people have been trained in income-generating beekeeping and have formed cooperatives, which generated 18,000,000 RWF in 2012 (RoR, 2014a).
Additionally, community-based tourism policies and plans provide guidelines for integrating communities into conservation activities, while simultaneously benefiting the tourism sector (for example, Gorilla Guardians in Volcanoes National Park, engaging local communities in managing the Kitabi eco-center in Nyungwe National Park).
Another example is the community-based freelance guides programme in Akagera National Park, creating 18 jobs and earnings of approximately USD $100,000. (RDB Annual Report 2017)
- Resource Mobilization. Through a grant by the Howard Buffett Foundation, Rwanda Development Board (RDB) invested more than USD $3 million in conservation efforts within Rwanda’s National Parks which resulted in: 263 law enforcement rangers trained; 16 new patrol posts constructed; Anti-Poaching helicopter & Unit K9 established; and Eastern Black Rhinoceros re-introduced in Akagera National Park (RDB Annual Report 2017).
- National policies and investments promoting ecotourism are vital;
- Engaging the private sector can bring funding, expertise and innovation to the tourism sector;
- Enhancing trans-boundary biodiversity management in a collaborative atmosphere, helps in landscape level conservation, control poaching and other types of encroachments;
- Responsible wildlife tourism is an important tool for both conserving biodiversity and growing the economy, and has the capacity to spark multi-million dollar investments by the private sector, and contributing substantially to a green economy; and
- Tourism is a cross-cutting industry, capable of achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both by contributing to biodiversity conservation, and by developing a green economy and stimulating trade.
Rwanda's eco-tourism industry accounts for a significant portion of foreign revenue. Eco-tourism is very important for Rwanda's macro-economic stability and prospects of economic growth.
Below are some of the key outcomes of the efforts undertaken by the government of Rwanda to develop its eco-tourism sector:
- Tourism revenues amounted to USD $438 million in 2017, constituting almost 50 per cent of all services exports (RDB Annual Report 2017);
- Almost 95,000 visits to national parks generated USD $18.7 million in revenue, with Volcanoes National Park almost generating 90 per cent of the revenue (RDB Annual Report 2017);
- The World Travel Awards named Rwanda as ‘Africa’s leading destination for tourism in 2017 (RDB Annual Report 2017);
- There has been a significant local investment in tourism, totaling approximately $700 million in a ten-year period (MINICOM, 2009).
- In 2010-11, the number of employees in the tourism sector was estimated at 23,000, with many more sectors indirectly benefiting from tourism, such as restaurants, transportation services and retail trade (NISR, 2012).
- The latest 2018 mountain gorilla census of the transboundary Virunga Massif region, released by the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Rwanda and the Republic of Uganda, has recorded 604 mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the region.
- The increase in mountain gorillas inhabiting the transboundary Virunga Massif region has been attributed to effective conservation policies, strategies, regulated tourism, effective law enforcement, community engagement, and transboundary collaboration among governments and civil society (UN Environment Press Release 2018).