Cross-border tour operators have played a key role in ensuring that the tourism sector in the East African Community (EAC) fully recovers from the effects of the different global events over the past couple of years by selling the region as one destination.
By giving tourists diversified products cutting across partner states, cross-border tour operators play a key role in retaining tourists within the region and this is what has catalysed the rebounding and recovery of tourism in the region.
The tour operators, who have taken advantage of the single EAC tourist visa, have contributed to the diversification of tourism products beyond traditional tourism attractions and joint promotion of the region as member states look to revamp the EAC region as a single tourism destination.
This was one of the observations made at the opening of the 3rd EAC Regional Tourism Expo (EARTE’23) and the Magical Kenya Travel Expo in Nairobi, Kenya, which was attended by regional Ministers responsible for EAC Affairs and Tourism and Wildlife Management as well as industry captains, on Monday.
The three-day Expo that kicked off today provides an opportunity for EAC Partner States to create awareness of tourism investment opportunities and address the challenges affecting the tourism and wildlife sectors in the region. The new EAC tourism brand, “Visit East Africa – Feel the Vibe,” was also launched at the opening of the expo and aims at promoting the region as a single investment hub.
Speaking while officially launching the forum, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in charge of Tourism and Wildlife, Dr. Alfred Mutua, who was also the Chief Guest, said that the Expo has brought together over 100 hosted buyers and 300 exhibitors, including tour operators, providing an opportunity for the region to jointly showcase its unique resources.
“This year’s theme, ‘Tourism for Green Growth,’ underscores our commitment to sustainable tourism. Kenya is set to introduce initiatives such as electric cars in parks and eco-rating schemes in our quest to propel tourism and our green growth agenda,” he said.
Dr. Mutua added that the Kenyan government is focusing on infrastructure improvement, security, incentives and marketing campaigns to sustain tourism growth.
“As part of our five-year plan, we target 5.5 million international tourist arrivals and a $6.3 billion annual contribution by 2028,” said Dr. Mutua.
Speaking at the launch, the EAC Deputy Secretary General in charge of Customs, Trade and Monetary Affairs, Annette Ssemuwemba, said that regional tourism has been on an upward trajectory after recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
Ssemuwemba who represented the EAC Secretary General, Dr. Peter Mathuki, said that the annual tourist arrivals are anticipated to increase to about 14.05 million by 2025 from the 7.2 million recorded in 2019.
“As we diversify our tourism markets, increasing the range of our tourism product offerings is inevitable. Whereas we are quite competitive in terms of beach and wildlife safari tourism, we are urging all EAC Partner States to diversify their tourism products,” said the Deputy Secretary General.
Ssemuwemba said that the EAC is collaborating with Partner States to develop other products such as cultural tourism, sport tourism, agro-tourism, and golf tourism among others.
“We are developing multi-destination thematic tourism packages that will encourage visitors to travel to more than one EAC Partner State in a single trip,” she added, commending the contribution of cross-border tour operators who ensure smooth movement.
Speaking at the event, Rebecca Kadaga, the 1st Deputy Prime Minister of Uganda and Minister for EAC Affairs, stated that it was critical for the region to make use of its natural resources such as Lake Victoria and also cross-border opportunities which offer tourists more.
“Fast-tracking of the EAC Single Tourism Visa is critical to sell the region as a single tourism investment hub. I also urge the Partner States to fast-track the development of the EAC Tourism and Wildlife Protocol,” she said.
Also present at the event were the South Sudan Minister of Wildlife Conservation, Rizik Zakaria Hassan, while Rwanda was represented by the High Commissioner to Kenya, Martin Ngoga, among others guests.
Rwanda’s tourism revenues are on a rise partly due to sector players like tour operators who have made it easy for both local and international visitors to move around the country and the region easily.
Tourism is one of the main earners for the country’s foreign exchange and the government has heavily invested in the sector to realize this growth as well as opening up the private sector to play a key role in tourism.
George Kimani, from Kenya was impressed by the cross border initiatives in Rwanda’s tourism sector which allowed him self-drive services from Rwanda’s volcano national park home to the famous gorilla crossing into Uganda from Rwandan service providers pick their cars.
“I found this a good initiative where it offers full-package with all services in one and I think this will help grow the tourism sector in the country and the region. It also comes cheaper compared to using different service providers at every point,” said Kimani.
Rwanda’s tourism like many other countries around the globe is recovering from the challenges caused by the 2020 covid-19 pandemic as global tourism and travel fell sharply in the wake of this pandemic.
Current tourism statistics reveal that Rwanda’s revenues from tourism amounted to US$247 million during the first half of 2023, reflecting a notable 56% surge compared to the US$158 million reported during the same period in 2022.
This growth came on the backdrop of a successful previous year where figures show that Rwanda’s tourism revenues had increased to US$445 million in 2022, up 171.3 percent from the previous year, with nature-based tourism bearing the potential to drive the country’s economic growth.
Gorilla trekking, a unique tourist attraction in the East African country, generated revenues of 113 million dollars, the government institution, Rwanda Development Board (RDB), said in a report released on Wednesday.
The country attracted about 110,000 visitors to its national parks in 2022, registering an increase of 142.4 percent from 2021, the report said. It added that the country aims to increase tourism receipts to 800 million dollars by 2024.
However, tour operators say that the tourism sector is showing positive signs of recovering and expect better business returns as tourists have resumed travels and this will boost the sector and the economy in general.
“The economy suffered globally many of our colleagues closed shop due to the pandemic but we have witnessed recovery during this year and tourists have returned local, regional and international and this will boost the economy and tourism business eco-system,” Frank Muzungu, the Managing Director of Kigali car rentals and tours, a tour operating company.
According to the report, in 2022, Rwanda welcomed a total of more than 1.1 million international visitors. Of these, the report showed, more than 60 per cent came from African countries, highlighting the country’s growing popularity as a destination within the continent.
According to the Rwanda Development Board, the path to economic recovery is well on course.
“In 2022, Rwanda continued to make significant progress in her efforts to achieve sustainable economic growth, despite the global challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic,” reads the RDB statement. adding that “the achievements in the tourism sector were satisfactory.”
Also in effort to diversify and maximize opportunities, RDB and Mandai Park Development, a private company in Singapore, signed a partnership agreement to establish the Nyungwe Experience at Mandai Park. This project will highlight Rwanda’s eco-luxury tourism offerings and draw visitors from Singapore and around the globe to Rwanda.
Rwanda’s overall strategic vision is to focus on high-end ecotourism rather than mass tourism. In the first Rwanda Tourism Strategy, three core market segments were identified: eco travelers, explorers, and business travelers.
Presence of important business challenges to the development of Rwanda’s tourism industry and access to financial capital, lack of qualified human resources, and limited understanding of customer needs have been identified as three business challenges that undermine Rwanda’s tourism industry’s ability to compete.