RWANDA TOURISM DIVERSIFIES MORE WITH THE OPENING OF NEW ATTRACTIONS
(Posted 22nd June 2013)
Rwanda has for a long time been considered primarily as a destination for gorilla tracking, and indeed, even today, gorilla tracking is the single most important tourism activity visitors come here for to experience.
The tourism planners at the Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department though have in recent years worked hard to showcase more of the country’s attractions and sights, and progressively added more places to visit and activities to undertake.
Birding trails outside the three national parks were launched with guides available from local communities, helping to spread some of the tourism wealth down to village level. The Congo Nile Trail along the shores of Lake Kivu was launched in late 2011 while the canopy walk, which was officially inaugurated in 2010 inside Nyungwe Forest National Park has turned into a real crowd puller. The opening last year of the Nyanza King’s Palace has attracted wide attention and special features and exhibitions by Institute of National Museums of Rwanda have added focus on the country’s history and culture.
Coinciding with the annual Festival of the Gorillas, aka Kwita Izina, has RDB given invited media representatives an insight into two new options for half day tours out of Musanze, either ahead or after tourists have enjoyed tracking the rare mountain gorillas or the golden monkeys, which can be found in the Volcanoes National Park.
One of the two attractions, still not open to the public though – the formal launch is expected to take place soon – are the Musanze Caves, an underground formation caused by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, long known by the locals but only more recently ‘discovered’ as a tourism attraction and being readied for a regular stream of visitors. In fact several tube caves have been discovered in the wider area of Musanze, but this one, easily accessible from the main Gisenyi – Musanze highway and with just about 2 km in length, was found to be eminently suitable to ‘convert’ into a tourism site. On arrival do visitors find all the necessary gear to put on, from gum boots to waterproof jackets and the quintessential helmet and a safety briefing by the guides is mandatory, as no unaccompanied entrance into the caves is permitted and the do’s and don’ts must be understood before embarking on the descent to the cave mouth and the walk through to the exit.
In the more distant past, 1975 to be precise, did a group of Belgian speleologists embark on a survey of four of the known caves, followed soon after in 1977 by a Spanish team, which found another one to be over 4.5 kilometres long. More expeditions took place in 2003 and 2004 be foreign teams, which explored about 20 more caves, with others still to be mapped out. Caving could thus become a major adventure activity, complementing the gorilla tracking in the Volcanoes National Park, and the success, and uptake, of the Musanze Caves will certainly determine if RDB will invest the funds needed to make the caves safe for visitors, have proper paths put up from the entrances through the caves to the exits and spend more money on signage, staff stationed there and the equipment needed to safely explore deep underground.
Inhabited by mainly bats, but also rodents, crawlers and other slitherers, the caves have no vegetation inside but rich growths at the entrance and exit parts respectively. The cost of turning the Musanze Caves into a tourism site, were not immediately available, nor the time it took to get the site prepared to its present state, but by the look of it, whatever RDB spent was money well spent on a new exciting activity.
The second site visited took me to the Buhanga Historic Eco Park, a site closely associated with the kingdom of old.
Now part of the Volcano National Park, visitors have the opportunity to see, and walk across the sprawling site, where in the old days the kings were given their ‘induction’ before being formally installed at the palace in Nyanza.
Two local guides are at hand to narrate their knowledge and lore, requiring an interpreter from Kinyarwanda to English. The guides received their information from their fathers who in turn received their information handed down from generation to generation of forefathers, who were in the employ of the royal household in an almost inherited capacity. They were the ones tasked to guard the Buhanga site and take care of the new king’s needs before his coronation and enthronement.
The entire area is about 13 hectares large, or small, and being a protected area home to about 150 identified species of bird, small game and even reptiles, none seen though during the 2 hour walk across the site. In the centre of the site stands tall the famous ‘Unity Tree’ about which many a saga can be told.
Combined with a visit to the King’s Palace in Nyanza, near Huye, and the main national museum in Huye itself, does Buhanga give an insight into Rwanda’s pre-colonial days when it was a kingdom, but on independence the monarchy was substituted with a republic, relegating the then king into a cultural figurehead.
What is remarkable is the restored pride in showing off the country’s cultural past and making visitors aware that there is more to it than ‘just gorillas’ when travelling to and across the Land of a Thousand Hills. True, Musanze is the undisputed gorilla tracking capital of East Africa but has in recent years become so much more to so many more people. Tourists now come to Rwanda to watch birds, hike the Congo Nile Trail or the trails across the Enchanted Nyungwe Forest National Park or see the rich heritage of Rwanda when visiting the sites and monuments across the country. The advantage of Rwanda is being compact enough so that one can with ease travel in a day from one corner to the opposite side, and on excellent roads for that matter, allowing to see much of what has been described in a matter of a few days. ‘In the past visitors came for 2 or 3 days, to see the gorillas and leave again. Today, we have so much more to see and the average length of stay has gone up. That means such visitors spend a lot more money while in Rwanda, which explains why we have seen double digit growth of revenues over the past years. The secret lies in diversification and RDB has been developing new circuits, new products and restored our historical sites. A visit to Rwanda now offers something for any budget and for any interest group. It is also good to launch some new attractions before Kwita Izina because all the regional and international media are here to report about it. This gives Rwanda a lot of exposure and helps us to promote existing and new sites’ said one of RDB’s staff attached to the media caravan. Very true and it gives the opportunity to thank RDB and their partners from the private sector for making this trip possible and reporting about Kwita Izina and all the new attractions in person from on site. Murakoze!