Column: Examining Rwanda’s Gorilla Tracking Fee Increase

Plan with peace of mind

Earlier this year, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) announced its immediate plans to double the fees, from US$750 to US$1500, for gorilla tracking permits in the Volcanoes National Park region. Since this shock hike – it was announced without any warning to the affected stakeholders – there has been much debate in the travel and tourism industry surrounding its divisiveness. Here, we examine the potential impact of this change and whether its introduction will prevent over-tourism or be detrimental to the Rwandan tourism industry.

It has been clear in recent months that Rwanda is wanting to position itself as a luxury destination, given the arrival of numerous luxury lodges close to the national park area. It could be argued that this increase in ticket pricing is just another step towards cementing the perception and actuality of Rwanda as a luxury destination.

However, the main argument for the increase by the RDB is that the money will go towards protecting and conserving the land in the national park, ultimately helping to sustain and improve the life of the mountain gorillas and their habitat. Ms. Clare Akamanzi, the Chief Executive Officer at the RDB, said: “Gorilla trekking is a highly unique experience. We have raised the price of permits in order to ensure sustainability of conservation initiatives and enhance visitors’ experience”.

Additionally, the money made from the increase will see the nearby affected communities receive a rise in the tourism revenue sharing rate, from 5% to 10%. As a result, the revenue will be used to improve the living conditions of local inhabitants through projects such as clean water initiatives and building schools; something the country is undoubtedly in need of and will benefit from greatly.

The ticket price increase could see an improvement to the local communities.

However, many people and businesses believe that this move will be detrimental to the tourism industry in Rwanda as it is only catering towards high-end clientele, thereby excluding hordes of mid and low-level tourists who would have otherwise visited. The move has also been openly criticised by the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association, who have stated concerns about the potential loss of tourism to both the country and the region: “We believe an immediate doubling of gorilla permits will be taken negatively by the markets, will affect our businesses and the whole tourism value chain and we risk losing substantial revenue for the industry and government as a whole.”

A loss of tourism to the area would see a knock-on effect to the country’s wealth as a whole and also to individual lives. Many people rely on tourism for work; fewer visitors could mean cuts to jobs and a decreased standard of livelihood. A loss of tourism would also, in the long term, start to impact on the gorillas themselves as it would become prohibitive to conservation efforts.

As Rwanda is rarely used as a direct destination, but more often as an ‘add-on’, visitors are likely to choose another nearby (cheaper) country as their added extra. Mountain gorillas are also present in parts of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has enabled the Uganda Tourist Board to embrace this as a tourism opportunity. They have declared their intentions to freeze their fees, currently at $600/$450 for peak/low season, for gorilla tracking for at least another year.

Tourists could be put off visiting Rwanda, instead choosing to visit neighbouring countries that are also home to mountain gorillas.

The ticket price increase has also affected Rwandan nationals, seeing the cost rise from $36 to $1500 – a 400% increase. As well as showing lack of consideration to its own people, this will indubitably affect the number of locals prepared to visit the Volcanoes National Park.

With potentially fewer tourists visiting the region, it could also mean that there is an element of exclusivity for clients, with a choice of lodges to stay at and the ability to take longer tours with access to more photographic opportunities. In turn this decrease in footfall may have a surprisingly positive effect on the ecosystem with fewer people trekking through the national park. After all, it has been the result of human presence that harmed and reduced the presence of mountain gorillas in the first place.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of this decision and the impact, if any, on Rwanda’s tourism industry.

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