Tour operator eyes US tourists, sets up office

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Gorilla tourism remains the backbone of Rwanda’s tourism and conservation sector. Rwandan officials are not concerned that they will lose tourists to their neighbours, arguing the country offers an experience that is rare in the region. PHOTO FILE | NATION

Amahoro Tours opened a sales office in the United States marking a first for the country’s nascent tourism industry.

The Musanze-based tour firm opened an office in Minnesota last month, betting on the steady recovery of the US economy, which should see a rebound in outbound travel.

Greg Bakunzi, who owns Amahoro Tours, toldRwanda Today that he expects the firm’s US presence to increase not just Rwanda’s but also East Africa’s visibility in the US market.

Mr Bakunzi said that since opening the shop last month, they have already registered more than 15 enquiries of tourists seeking to come to Rwanda.

The company has been offering packages for mountain hiking, gorilla tracking and community-based tourism. The packages offer visitors a traditional experience of Rwanda.

The tour operator is targeting high-end clients, while also selling tour packages in neighbouring Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We have been going on a number of road shows and trade tourism fairs most recently in Europe, but we decided to target the US market because the economy is recovering and there is a willingness by Americans to visit Rwanda,” he said.

“We have just opened the Minnesota office as we position to enter other markets. Canada is next on our sights,” he added.

The move by the tour firm comes on the back of a policy shift by Rwanda to market the country as a high-end tourism destination.

Last year May, the Rwanda Development Board doubled the fees for gorilla tracking permits from $750 to $1,500. The move was criticised as favouring the wealthy over the less privileged custodians of the country’s natural heritage.

Rwanda, which has been leading research into conservation of the endangered primates since the 1960, controls part of the transboundary Virunga ecosystem that straddles parts of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo where poaching and harassment have kept numbers low.

Rwanda’s move on tracking fees was at odds with neighbouring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have not adjusted their fees. Uganda maintained its peak rate at $600 while the DR Congo charges $450.

Rwanda defended the hike as necessary to ensure sustainability of conservation initiatives, enhance visitors’ experience and improve the lives of communities around protected areas.

Mr Bakunzi said the change in fees is something they have learnt to live with and he believes it will not have a major impact on the business.

“Most of our challenges have been market access, yes the increase of permit fee initially got us worried but progressively we learnt to catch up,” he said.

Rwanda earned $400 million from tourism in 2016 with gorilla tracking as the main attraction to the country.

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