How Rwanda Became the Unlikeliest Tourism Destination in Africa
From the balcony of my villa at daybreak, I can see the nearby village creaking to life. Children are walking to school in their blue uniforms, and a farmer slings a hoe into the ground. The Africa of travelers’ imaginations is defined by vast open spaces—the treeless plains, the lonely desert—but Rwanda is the most densely populated country on the continent, and a trip here comes with an awareness that you’re sharing this space.
I sip my coffee in the morning breeze, and my eyes wander out to the mountain dominating the landscape. Mount Bisoke is one of several volcanoes in the Virunga chain, and every room at Bisate Lodge offers a front-row seat to its majesty. Although the peak spends much of the day hiding behind clouds, at this early hour, sunbeams shoot out from behind the crown like a kind of holy light, and I can understand why people from another era might have believed it was magical.
The Virungas are home to more than half the area’s 880 endangered mountain gorillas, the same primates Dian Fossey studied in the 1970s and ’80s. The chance to visit them in their natural rainforest habitat is a bucket-list item that draws visitors from across the globe to these peaks, which straddle the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla treks can originate in each country, but Rwanda has emerged as the high-end experience. Wilderness Safaris, one of the top ecotourism companies in Africa, opened Bisate Lodge near Volcanoes National Park in June. Faith in the area is so strong that two more premium names, Singita and One & Only Resorts, are opening properties near the park in 2018 and 2019, making Rwanda a new seat of luxury tourism.
Luxury? Rwanda? The 1994 genocide here was one of the most bone-chilling tragedies in modern memory, leaving a million dead and an entire country shaken to its core. In the almost quarter-century since, however, something remarkable has happened. Rwanda has flourished. No more talk of Hutus and Tutsis, the tribal divisions exacerbated by Belgian colonialists, but a newfound unity. There’s mandatory education and universal health care. The country even legislated gender equality and claims more women in Parliament than any government in the world. Much of this change can be attributed to Paul Kagame, the president who steered Rwanda through a long period of reconciliation to emerge as one of the safest places in Africa.
And so tourism is booming. Up 30 percent in the last two years alone and grossing $400 million in 2016, the industry has pushed past coffee to become the country’s top foreign exchange earner. In the capital of Kigali, a futuristic new convention center is part of the government’s plan to frame the centrally located city as a major business hub. Marriott International Inc. and Radisson Blu have opened 200-plus-room hotels to accommodate the influx. Once dismissed by guidebooks as “nothing much to see here,” Kigali has the vibrancy of a bustling 21st century Africa, where women in colorful kitenge dresses carry jugs on their head alongside zooming moto taxis and young people texting. With multiple carriers flying into Kigali International Airport and an easy $30 visa paid upon arrival (a $100 three-pack includes Uganda and Kenya), travel to and around this tiny landlocked country has become easier than ever. The hope is that tourists who come for the gorillas will stay and discover the rest.
The drive to Bisate Lodge is a three-hour journey from Kigali along winding mountain passes that overlook an endless patchwork of crop plots: banana groves with leaves like flapping elephant ears; wheat fields rippling into the horizon; potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Ninety percent of the country’s 12 million inhabitants are subsistence farmers, leaving little of the green and hilly landscape uncultivated.
I’ve arrived in July, during the dry season that runs from June to mid-September. The temperature stays moderate year-round, but Rwanda is a place of fog and shifting winds, and though it’s a sunny 75F back in Kigali, the air gets chillier as the road climbs toward my destination. The final 15 minutes of the trip take me and my driver, Duncan, down a bumpy road through a mud-hut village, also called Bisate. Goats nibble on bushes and barefoot children stare at the black SUV as it passes, still struck by the novelty of a stranger coming to their part of the world.
Bisate Lodge was built within eyeshot of the town, and though the proximity turns out to be a profound part of my visit, I feel a stab of self-consciousness. Should I wave? Or try to remain invisible? We talk about travel as “getting away,” but just as crucially it’s an act of entering—a new place, a culture not our own. Those of us lucky enough to set foot on foreign soil would do well to consider the moral complexity of our arrival.
Fortunately, Wilderness Safaris has been doing that for more than three decades. Conceived in 1983 by Colin Bell and Chris McIntyre, two shaggy-haired guides seized by the need to preserve the area wildlife, the company evolved alongside a more sophisticated understanding of global travel. The point isn’t simply to take away but also to give back. With more than 40 camps and lodges, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, Wilderness has earned a reputation for conserving land and also building up local communities. Five years ago, when the company began looking at this farmland around Volcanoes National Park, its team met with a co-op formed from the village and asked, “What do you want?” The answer from the communities was clear: They wanted jobs and opportunity.
Bisate has given them both. At the northwestern edge of the village, the lodge appears at the end of a short, solitary road, a cluster of chestnut-shaped villas nestled into an eroded volcanic cone. (The word bisate means “pieces” in Kinyarwanda.) About 250 locals helped build the property, and 45 Rwandans were hired as permanent staff, almost half from the village.
A dozen or so of those employees greet me with a ritual welcome song, punctuated by hand claps and proud smiles. Someone whisks away my luggage, and I begin the steep climb up a staircase of black volcanic brick. “Each of these was carried by hand,” says Ingrid Baas, a tall Dutch blonde who runs the lodge with her husband, Rob. I nod at the reminder of how much hard work goes into seamless beauty and try to pretend I’m not winded. At 8,100 feet above sea level, the altitude requires an adjustment period.
The reward for the climb to your room is the view, a vast panorama of the Musanze Valley and the Virunga Massif. Walking into my 1,000-square-foot villa, one of only six on the property, is like stepping inside an elegant woven basket. Designed by the South Africa-based Nicholas Plewman Architects, Bisate draws inspiration from the dramatic dome and thatching of the King’s Palace at Nyanza, the 19th century seat of monarchy in Rwanda’s southern province.
As much as the style points toward the past, it has an innovative flair that’s otherworldly. That night, I return to my room after a three-course dinner that includes kuku paka, a spicy chicken dish, to find the fireplace roaring and a hot water bottle tucked underneath the covers, a reminder that luxury isn’t necessarily about flash as much as the awareness that you are known and taken care of.
I wake up early the next morning to go on our gorilla hike. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund monitors 11 habituated families in the Virungas, and each roams a different territory, meaning the treks (arranged for groups of eight or fewer) can take from 30 minutes to eight hours; once we find a family, we’ll get a strict 60 minutes for visitation. Our journey is a 2½-hour ascent into stunning rainforest, an entire color wheel made from shades of green, where giant trees drip with moss and ropy vines to make the world’s greatest jungle gym.
Finally, we spot a furry black shape behind a thatch of leaves—Mafunzo, the 18-year-old silverback patriarch of his 13-member clan. Whoa, this guy is big. Silverbacks, named for the white hair on their broad backs, can grow to more than 400 pounds; the large ones are the alpha males, who attract mates with their strength and ability to provide.
As our group inches closer, any fear in my body shifts into something calmer and more profound. Mafunzo is lying on his back and covers his eyes for a nap as a baby scampers over his protruding belly. The baby’s mother (one of five females in the group) ushers the little one off to give the big guy some rest.
The most remarkable thing about gorillas is perhaps the most obvious: They are so much like us. My eyes keep returning to the snail shell of their ears, the familiar details of their fingernails and grasping hands. Gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA, and standing among them feels as if some wormhole has spit us out into the Pleistocene era wearing North Face gear and holding iPhones.
“Turn around,” the guide whispers, and I pivot slowly to find a juvenile, the equivalent of a teen, hanging out a few feet away from me and chomping on some bamboo. He discards the stick and lumbers through the center of our group, dragging his hand along my pants leg as he passes.
The experience is unforgettable, but these treks aren’t without controversy. A few weeks before I arrived in Rwanda, the government doubled the price of a permit to visit the gorillas to $1,500 per person. The cost, twice as much as in neighboring Uganda, was a confirmation of the country’s move toward high-cost, low-volume tourism. Commercial operators knew the spike was coming, a reflection of the market demand for a strictly capped number of permits. But few expected the steep increase to come without discounts for locals, who are entrusted with the protection of Volcanoes National Park.
“I’m aware the locals don’t go very often,” says Praveen Moman, owner of Volcanoes Safaris and one of the pioneers in the area. “But psychologically, it’s important they should be able to.” Moman came to the park two decades ago, when the question for anyone creating tourism in Rwanda was: Are you crazy? Gorilla treks were done by military convoy. The absence of banks meant you paid for things with wheelbarrows of cash. In 2004, Moman gambled with what became the first luxury accommodations in the area, Virunga Lodge, and watched as more visitors came, helping the gorillas transition from a species under constant threat to one revered as a national icon.
“The gorillas symbolize the rebirth of Rwanda as a whole,” Moman says. As ecotourism proved a sustainable model in the Virungas, former poachers began to work as gorilla trackers, locals got jobs as porters and guides, and funds from the increasingly popular treks were funneled to the nearby farmers. Along with the price hike in permits, the government has doubled the amount going to rural communities, from 5 percent to 10 percent.
“I think the government’s in a particularly difficult situation, and they’re asking, ‘How do I create the best-quality jobs?’ ” says Keith Vincent, chief executive officer of Wilderness Safaris. He agrees with Moman that more affordable permits need to be available to the locals. “This is something commercial operators must understand and fight for, whether they’re in the U.S. or Africa. Local citizens must have the ability to visit their own natural environment at a reasonable cost.”
For now, the government has been focused less on encouraging gorilla tourism and more on keeping tourists here once they arrive. Visitors get a 30 percent permit discount if they stay six nights in the country, and there is so much more to see. In Nyungwe National Park, where One & Only is opening a resort in October, chimpanzees and monkeys roam a rainforest filled with birds and orchids. Last May about 20 eastern black rhinos were reintroduced into Akagera National Park after the species disappeared 10 years ago, marking the triumphant return of the Big Five (lion, rhino, elephant, leopard, buffalo), the most difficult animals to track and therefore the safari gold standard.
Wilderness Safaris is developing a second lodge close to Akagera on the Tanzania border in the east. “Everybody wants to do the right thing for Rwanda,” Vincent says. “I’ve never seen anywhere in Africa that has the same level of commitment.”
The dedication of the Rwandans is a sentiment I hear again and again during my stay. “They want this so bad,” says Bisate’s Ingrid Baas. She’s been awed by the drive and optimism of her staff despite the country’s grim past. It was weeks into training before it dawned on her that at least half the local employees were orphans.
A few months before the lodge opened, a young man teaching English to the other employees told Baas his dream was to be a chef. Since then, he’s been working in the kitchen, where he’s learning knife skills and his mise en place. His name is Innocent Nshimiyimana, and on an unusually sunny and warm day, he sits on the balcony of the lobby in his crisp chef’s whites and points to the modest home where he was born 24 years ago. His family thought he was nuts to change his career—“What are you cooking over there?” they asked him skeptically—but they’ve seen him transform, learn, and find new purpose.
There are so many stories like his. Gilbert Ndagijimana, a handyman, sometimes runs back to his place down the hill to grab a tool the lodge is missing. Josiane Dusengimana, who works in the laundry room, has to field questions from her parents, who don’t understand why she isn’t married with a baby at 25. Hers is the same refrain passed down from one generation to another: She wants more. One day, when her English is better, she hopes to join the waitstaff.
That afternoon, I walk down the short dusty road to the village with Aline Umutoni, the community outreach coordinator who grew up in the Musanze district. This visit is one of two afternoon outings the lodge offers, along with a serene nature walk, but this is more popular. People want to connect, it turns out, even more than they want to escape. An older woman teaches me to say thank you—murakoze—and the group around us bursts into laughter and applause.
On my final morning in Rwanda, I find a soil-rich hagenia bulb in a paper bag waiting by the side of my bed. Bisate has planted 15,000 trees around the lodge, part of a massive reforestation effort, and each visitor gets to play a small part. One of the employees meets me at a plot near the entrance, where we lean over on our knees to place the fledgling tree into a hole in the ground. “That’s your tree now,” he says, as we pack the soil loosely with our hands. “You’ll have to come back to see how it grows.”
A one-night stay at Bisate Lodge in Rwanda starts at $1,100 per person. Fly into Kigali International Airport, a three-hour drive away. Price includes three meals per day and drinks. Gorilla permits are $1,500 per person.