Tariro Mzezewa © The New York Times Company
A New Yorker article in 1994 described the genocide in Rwanda as being so dangerous that foreigners providing aid never went beyond the airport perimeter.
One street was described as a place “where everything is shot up and every building is riddled”.
In the years since, conflict and strife have receded, with infrastructure rebuilt and the economy recovering. And through a combination of marketing, social media and development – and with the fading associations of discord that come with the passage of time – Rwanda is becoming a popular tourism destination.
In Rwanda, tourism was up to 1.5 million visitors in 2017 from 826 000 in 2007, with tourists attracted to the country’s lush rain forests; the growing art scene in its capital, Kigali; and its gorilla conservation efforts. Despite having one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and often being cited as one of the most impressive cases of post-conflict recovery, Rwanda is widely known for one horrific event, said Sunny Ntayombya, marketing and communications manager for the Rwanda Development Board. That event, of course, is the 1994 genocide, in which 800 000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed by the majority Hutus in 100 days.
“Throw in the fact that there’s only been one major Hollywood movie about Rwanda, which fuels the negative perception of this small African country that’s kind of unknown already, so even if you know a little about Rwanda, it’s probably in the prism of Hotel Rwanda,” Ntayombya said.
“The way we’ve tackled that is not by running away from our past but rather by telling the world that Rwanda is not just one thing, not one event, not one series of events; it’s a story of the depths of humanity, if people work together and are disciplined,” Ntayombya said.
Kinigi, Rwanda – October 2, 2015: the Mt Sabinyo volcano stands at the border of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC in het heart of Volcanoes National Park. In the foreground recently ploughed fertile volcanic soils near a village where a farmer herd a small herd of cows. iStock
In Rwanda, the tourism board did a big push around gorillas and gorilla protection. The country uses social media to promote the opportunity to spend time with gorillas and sells tickets to the annual Kwita Izina, a Rwandan ceremony of giving a name to a newborn baby gorilla. The lesson is clear for Memunatu Pratt, the minister of tourism and culture for Sierra Leone, which suffered a deadly outbreak of Ebola in 2014 that caused tourism to plummet by half from the previous year. Five years on, it has yet to make a significant rebound.
“We are trying to look at Rwanda and how it has used the gorilla as the national animal,” she said. Her country’s choice: chimps. “We are using the chimpanzee as a national animal, and it gives us an opportunity to consolidate and conserve, and a lot of tourists care about conservation.”
The view of sunset at Kigali. iStock
In 2018, Australian American actress Portia de Rossi gave her wife, Ellen DeGeneres, an on-camera 60th birthday gift: A trip to Africa culminating in a visit to a new campus named for DeGeneres to be built at The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Kinigi, Rwanda. The fund continues the work of Fossey, the naturalist who made Rwanda’s gorillas her cause and who was murdered in 1985.
Since that gift was given on tv, de Rossi has been to Kinigi to break ground for the campus, and DeGeneres has visited Rwanda (and shared videos and photos from the trip). The two have a combined 80 million followers on Instagram. Last year, players for Arsenal, the English Premier League soccer team, began taking to the field in uniforms that said “Visit Rwanda” on the T-shirt sleeves.
As part of the $39 million (about R574 million) marketing campaign, Arsenal players will visit Rwanda and coach at soccer camps. The Rwandan government received backlash from people questioning the government’s financial priorities.
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