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Interviewee: Clarence Fernandes, Chairman of Rwanda Renaissance

Interviewer: Atlanta Mahanta, Sr. Multimedia Journalist, THE TIMES OF AFRICA

Q. Please share your journey with Rwanda Renaissance.

A. My association with Rwanda started way back in the year 2007, it was in London at the World Travel Market. The following year, I took a small delegation for the first East African Community Investment Conference which was held in Kigali. That was my first visit to Rwanda and it was an eye-opener. People suggested that I should not travel. People had stereotypical eyes because of the movie “Hotel Rwanda” which is a representation of a story that happened in 1994. It was nothing like that in 2008, people in Rwanda are so warm and friendly. Just an example of why I find Rwanda different, back in 2008, I received a free local sim card with preloaded talk time for communication during that time. I have been to so many conferences in Europe, Africa, and Middle-East Asia South-East Asia but didn’t receive this kind of service, “Small things are beautiful.” That was the first positive impression. 

In 2011, facilitated by the CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, I toured every corner of the country.  I envisioned the potential of Rwanda in Tourism. There is the mountain gorilla, MICE tourism, religious tourism, safari, lakes, and many more to discover. Progressively, I got very close and well associated with Rwanda. In January 2012, I was appointed as the Indian Representative of the Rwanda Development Board.  With the love I have developed for Rwanda, I continued with my association with the country even after the completion of my assignment with RDB.

Q. How will tourism in Rwanda change, post COVID?

A. The COVID 19 Pandemic has hit the tourism sector,  be it in Rwanda or India or for that matter, in any part of the world. Let me address this question in two parts  – in the short term and in the long term. 

Rwanda Tourism is focusing very strongly on domestic tourism in the short term. In view of international travel restrictions and health concerns, with this smart shift in focus to domestic tourism, the country is making all out efforts to keep this fragile sector afloat in the current situation. The Government of Rwanda has also introduced various stimulus programs to alleviate the suffering of the tourism sector. Once the situation limps back to a near normal situation, the country will,  through an aggressive marketing strategy, gradually win back tourists, post COVID, so that one could again look forward to a VISIT RWANDA. 

Q. How tourism is a strategic sector for the Government in Rwanda as part of its transformation and modernization of the economy. In 2019, tourism contributed to 10 % of the country’s GDP and was responsible for 8 % of all employment according to the WTO .

A. Tourism was, until just before the COVID 19 Pandemic,  the largest foreign exchange earner for the country. This,  in itself, speaks volumes as to how strategic the tourism sector is for the Government of Rwanda.  Rwanda lays immense importance to the services sector and within this sector tourism holds pride of place. While the country continues a systematic transformation and modernization of the economy,  tourism continues to play a pivotal role in the process, with a steady increase in the number of hotel rooms across all star categories. Hand in hand,  tourism infrastructure is constantly being upgraded to welcome an increased number of international tourists.  Connectivity is rapidly increasing,  with the national carrier , RwandAir, adding newer destinations and enabling visitors from different countries to ” fly the dream of Africa” into Rwanda’s spotlessly clean capital city , Kigali.

Rwanda Tourism is focusing very strongly on the MICE sector,  for example,  with the iconic state of the art Kigali Convention Centre, offering the country as a preferred destination for even very large international conventions. Rwanda is blessed with having the only place of pilgrimage in the whole of Africa,  approved by the Vatican – the holy land of KIBEHO,  in the Southern Province of the country. Here too, both the provincial government as well as the national government are working closely to ensure that pilgrims from India and other parts of the world have an ideal place dedicated to prayer, worship and meditation. Rwanda’s unique selling proposition from a tourism perspective is the endangered   Mountain Gorilla. Here , the local people are closely involved in the conservation process and this has resulted in a steady increase in the population of this species. Community Tourism  is gaining popularity and the country has several model villages and communities where an international tourist can mingle with the locals at close quarters. 

Q. What is the role of soft power in Rwanda?

A. Let me start answering this question with a quotation from Dr. ( Fr ) Clifton Lobo,  who on his very first VISIT RWANDA remarked, “the world needs to learn from Rwanda.” We all know that Rwanda went through one of the worst genocides in the history of mankind – the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi.

While practically the entire world wrote off Rwanda as a ‘ failed state ‘ the Government of Rwanda,  under the able guidance and astute leadership of His Excellency,  President Paul Kagame,  slowly but very steadily rebuilt the country using soft power. Rwanda today, is one of the most prosperous countries in the whole of Africa.  Coupled with this, the country firmly believes in good governance and zero tolerance to corruption. The country has shown how through a persuasive approach and by appealing to one’s heart , whatever needs to be done,  can actually get done both economically as well as culturally. 

Q. What are the challenges for the tourism sector in LMICs?

A. Poverty among the locals is always a major challenge in LMICs. Here, again, Remarkable Rwanda, though it might have been an LDC (least developed country)for long, has given the world a  good lesson as to how to cope with such a situation not by just relying on foreign aid but by gradually moving to become a  self-sufficient country. This involves a strong political will which is always evident in the country. 

Q. What is your opinion on collaboration between India and Rwanda?

A. It was our Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi who remarked , on his first ever historic VISIT RWANDA, a couple of  years ago,  that India is proud to be a trusted development partner of Rwanda. Prime Minister Modi took a one hundred member strong delegation from India to Rwanda across all sectors of the economy. The visit gave a tremendous boost to Indo-Rwandan ties be it with respect to trade, tourism , investments or even culture. 

Now that we have a full-fledged Indian High Commission in Kigali, collaborations between Incredible India and Remarkable Rwanda will continue to increase rapidly. Rwanda has become a preferred investment destination not just for India but various other countries as well. 

*The article was first published on TOA magazine 

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