Rwanda Uses Gorilla Tactics to Improve Balance of Payments

  • Tourism industry is nation’s biggest foreign-exchange earner
  • Current-account gap widened last year as mining earnings fell

Rwanda is roping in its mountain-gorilla population to help boost foreign-currency earnings.

The East African nation has doubled the cost of trekking permits to see the endangered apes, according to the state-run Rwanda Development Board. The tea-growing country is home to 380 of the 880 mountain gorillas left on the planet.

Rwanda hiked the tariff to $1,500 from $750 to support the country’s “effort to raise forex for a healthy balance of payments,” RDB Chief Executive Officer Clare Akamanzi said on her Twitter account on Tuesday.

Rwanda’s current-account deficit widened last year as shipment earnings from minerals such as cassiterite, which make up 14 percent of total exports, dropped 27 percent because of lower global commodities prices. The shortfall more than doubled from five years earlier to $1.2 billion in 2016. The state projects exports will increase by a fifth this year, after surging almost 40 percent in first two months of 2017.

Tourism is Rwanda’s biggest foreign-exchange earner and contributes about 11 percent to the $8 billion economy. The gorillas, which also roam the forested Virunga volcanic mountain range that spans Rwanda, along with neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are the nation’s biggest tourist attraction. A drop in tourism earnings risks undermining economic growth from the 6.5 percent central bank forecast this year.

Limited Permits

Rwanda issues only 80 single permits per day to visit the gorillas, limiting groups to 10 people. Even Rwandans, who previously paid only 30,000 francs ($36) to see the animals, are now required to pay the new tariff. Citizens of other East African countries previously paid $300.

Rwanda, which sold 22,219 permits in 2016, prefers a low-volume, high-value market, Akamanzi said by phone.

“The demand we see shows a certain number of people can afford,” she said. “Rwanda is not a massive-numbers tourist destination, especially for gorilla trekking.”

The instant doubling risks losing substantial revenue for both the industry and the government, the Rwanda Tour and Travel Association said in an emailed statement. One hotel owner said he received 20 booking cancellations within two days of the announcement on May 6.

“The move is shocking to everyone,” Robert Twibaze, a hotel owner in northwest Rwanda, said by phone. “This is really bad for the business and we’re worried of the impact it’ll have.”

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