Rwanda’s tourism prospects are promising – Eric Van Stapele

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Eric Van Stapele and his wife clad in umushanana. / Moses Opobo

Eric Van Stapele holds dual citizenship for Kenya and the Netherlands. He was born in Kenya, where his Dutch parents had been posted during the colonial period, and confesses a deeper fondness for Kenya.

Following the bloody Mau Mau uprising in the run-up to Kenya’s independence in 1963, his parents were forced to flee with him to safety in the Netherlands.

But Stapele’s heart remained in Kenya, the country of his birth. He thus continued returning for visits whenever he could. So fond of the tropical Savannah he was, that he introduced his wife to Kenya and they were married from there.

“Even after my mother died I brought the ashes back to Kenya because she too was really fond of that country more than all other countries she had managed to visit,” he explains.

His love for the country’s abundant flora and fauna eventually led Stapele to venture into the Tours and Travel business.

His company, OnsKenia is a stark reflection of his mixed heritage. OnsKenia is Dutch for ‘One Kenya.’

The company has been operating itineraries in Kenya and Tanzania, but the need to explore new frontiers recently saw Stapele and his wife make a two-week familiarisation trip to Rwanda.

His mission was to check out what Rwanda’s tourism sector has to offer to European tourists in general and the Netherlands in particular.

I met Stapele and his wife at Red Rocks Backpackers Campsite in Musanze District, clad in the signature Rwandan traditional wear –umushanana. At Red Rocks, Stapele wanted to learn more about the country’s cultural tourism model. Luckily for him, the Minister for Sports and Culture, Julienne Uwacu was on a fact-finding ministerial visit at Red Rocks.

So why did he not opt for any other country (Uganda, for instance, which is nearer to Kenya) but Rwanda, I ask him and he retorts;

“For Dutch clients, Uganda is already located on the map. There are big tour companies like Matooke Tours which actually has its own lodges and accommodation in Uganda. Also, we were interested in gorillas as well.”

“We also chose Rwanda because Kenya does not have chimpanzees anymore, and this has been caused by climate change. Now we only have Kakamega forest as the only part of rain forest still left in Kenya in the area bordering Mt. Elgon in Eastern Uganda. In the past it used to be from East to West Africa as one belt.”

The third reason he gives for his choice of Rwanda is the mountain gorillas.

“Tourists increasingly want the gorillas paired with hiking on their itinerary, and here you can hike up the Volcanoes. But there is also something we wanted to introduce to the Europeans – something of the cultural life and that’s why I came to Red Rocks.”

“I met Greg Bakunzi (the owner of Red Rocks) at the largest consumer exhibition in the Netherlands in January last year and I promised to visit,” he explains the genesis of his trip.

In Musanze, he explored all the options available to a tourist, visiting all the major hotels before heading to Gisenyi and finally Kigali.

“What I really want is to give a full picture to the clients on what they can expect on arrival. If you want high-end facilities, we know where to take you, and if you’re more interested in social life, we bring you to places where there’s community-based tourism.

That’s what we do also in Kenya and Tanzania – we make a mix. It’s really about knowing where the client’s limit is – whether it’s budget or time, and we explore it for them. Another thing we want to do is highlight the genocide in Rwanda. After the Genocide, Rwandans started living peacefully together side-by-side, and people are interested in knowing how this is possible,” he says.

Over the years Stapele has cultivated a steady clientele of Dutch tourists for who he organises custom-made safaris to Kenya and Tanzania. It is this loyal clientele which he now wants to introduce to the Rwandan frontier.

“When the Dutch travel to Africa usually they want to see the wildlife and then the Maasai. The Maasai people and their culture are well-known around the world, but it’s not only them. There are several tribes out there not only in Kenya but across the region, so we encourage them to meet the tribes and see the difference. Primarily the focus of Dutch people is wildlife and tribes, because they come with the notion that Africa is the cradle of humankind,” he says.

He points out that although Rwanda is still relatively expensive compared to say Uganda when it comes to gorilla trekking, the country can entice more tourists if it can combine themes, for instance, cultural tourism and the beach,” he explains.

Stapele, however, reveals that negative press has come to dent the Kenyan tourism sector deeply in the recent past.

“The Ducth do have a lot in common with Kenya, so whenever something is happening in Kenya, it will be broadcast heavily on television in the Netherlands and it’s never Tanzania or Uganda.

For instance if the Al-Shabaab does something in Garissa, far off in northern Kenya, it doesn’t hurt tourism but it will be broadcast yet it’s so far from Nairobi.”

So what are Rwanda’s tourism prospects vis-à-vis her East African counterparts, I ask him;

“I don’t think that Rwanda is on the map in the Netherlands, and we really have to promote it.”

Impressions on Rwanda

“Moshi used to the cleanest town in Africa, but when I came here and saw Kigali, I’m not sure of that anymore,” Stapele states when I ask for his impressions of the country so far.

“I’ve been to Dar es Salaam, to Nairobi and to all the other big places, but I must say it’s totally different here. This is a real clean city. And I don’t think that this has been emphasised enough to the outside world. I think that starting with the East African Community this is a good example. It’s so green and the people are welcoming,”he says.

His reckoning is that it’s possible for ordinary Rwandans to tap the tourist dollars through sale of souvenirs and touristic paraphernalia.

“Most people don’t like the tourist shops when travelling because they are expensive and then you are getting less. So what tourists do is to avoid these places whenever they can. People would rather purchase something from which the local community will benefit,” says Stapele.

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