Positive Impact Pioneers: The Retreat, Kigali
Rwanda's capital city, Kigali, is becoming far more than just a stopover destination.
One of the safest cities across Africa, Kigali's cultural centres, endless food markets and historical museums are sure to cast a spell on anyone who visits.
In the heart of the action lies The Retreat, Rwanda's first entirely eco-friendly resort. We caught up with owner Alissa Ruxin, to hear more about how this incredible project came to be.
You're originally from New York City. How did you end up coming to, and staying in Rwanda?
My husband and co-founder, Josh, had been working as a public health consultant across various different African countries for many years. Just after the genocide happened, Josh was called over to Rwanda in 2005 in order to consult on how tourism in the region could be improved and I joined him. We worked specifically in the village of Nyamata, where Josh was asked to deliver the Millenium Development Project, aimed at breaking Nyamata out of poverty. Today, we take our guests on tours to Nyamata, so they get a real feeling for how far Rwanda has come. We were both truly inspired by working on the ground in Rwanda, and are both firm believers in creating jobs and opportunities for local people. We’ve really made our lives in Rwanda now, and have three adopted Rwandan children alongside three of our own.
What inspired you to set up The Retreat as a positive impact property?
Our previous hotel, Heaven, also had a strong positive impact focus, as it’s something we’ve always been passionate about. With The Retreat though, we really wanted to set up something that had a focus on telling the stories of Rwandan people and the local community. We realised there was a gap in the market, as there were no boutique luxury hotels in Kigali. We took a massive risk in setting The Retreat up, as we didn’t know whether there’d be a luxury market or not. The risk seems to have paid off though, and now most of our efforts focus on positively impacting the local community through our hotel.
Can you tell me a bit more about the hospitality training programme you run?
We’re known for our hospitality training, and it’s one of the aspects of our business that we’re most proud of. Around 1,000 Rwandans have been trained in our hospitality school across different functions, from customer service to cookery. We also equip our staff with training skills – at Heaven and The Retreat, our hospitality programme is based on older staff training new intakes. We encourage our staff to seek opportunities elsewhere once they’re trained up, and everyone who has graduated from the programme has gone on to work for incredible local businesses, including Singita Kwitonda and Bisate Lodge.
Rwanda is often seen as a more 'intrepid' destination. Do you think perceptions are changing, and people are more open to visiting now?
Yes, I do. There’s been some great marketing done by the Rwandan government, which is really showcasing the fact that Rwanda is a great country to visit. Statistics like the fact Rwanda has the most women in government of any country in the world also show just how progressive a country it is. With the arrival of properties like the One&Only and Singita, the luxury market in Rwanda is really starting to open up too. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest and safest cities in Africa – it’s far more than the genocide that happened 25 years ago.
You guys run some great community-led experiences. How do you make sure these experiences represent the community authentically?
As it’s something we’re so passionate about, we try to incorporate local culture into everything we do. Some examples of tours we run are fashion tours where our guests can meet local women’s co-operatives making incredible jewellery, culinary tours where guests visit Rwanda’s eclectic milk bars and historical tours taking guests through Nyamata village. I’d say the main reason our tours are so true to the community is because I’ve spent years exploring and getting to know the local entrepreneurs who aren’t necessarily being written about. From supporting street kids to giving genocide survivors a platform to tell their stories, all our community-led experiences focus on showcasing the locals behind Rwanda.
Finally, why do you think it's important for businesses in the tourism industry to work towards having a positive impact?
Ultimately, I believe in the power of companies and the private sector to benefit local communities. I could have easily worked for an NGO instead of setting up a business from scratch, but I really do believe working on the ground to create jobs and opportunities for local people is a vital ingredient for success when it comes to doing tourism responsibly.