by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE
We followed our guide into the luscious verdant growth, losing sight of the towering volcano above us. We were now officially inside Volcanoes National Park having recently traversed the low stone wall and ditch that demarcates the Gorilla habitat from the local farming communities. The sun had penetrated the early morning cloud and, occasionally, we could feel the warm glow on our faces as we progressed, somewhat tentatively, through dense thicket and deep mud.
We’d been up since 6am that morning and had been told what lay ahead at the official briefing station where the 96 fortunate souls who manage to get a place on the Gorilla trek are divided into 12 parties of no more than 8. There were 7 of us led by 2 uniformed rangers and 7 local poachers-turned-gamekeepers whom we’d be encouraged to recruit at $10 per trek to carry our stuff and generally look after us.
When we reached the appointed stop in the park we were met by 2 advance trekkers who knew where our Gorilla family was to be found. With them there was a guard with an AK47. As the trekkers worked their machetes to hack out a rough path for us through the forest undergrowth, it hit me light a thunderbolt. A short interval of years ago, less, in fact than the age of my youngest daughter, this place was ablaze with AK47s, lethal machetes and blunt clubs as, over 100 bloody days, an evil government visited a terrible and terrifying genocide on its own people.
Rwanda – a miracle of progress
For many people outside of the African continent, this is still the dominant image of Rwanda – a mercurial, brutal, chaotic place of unspeakable violence. Africans, however, know better and have seen Rwanda move dramatically, perhaps miraculously, from a dark dark past to a bright future, posting year on year GDP growth rates of over 8%, leaving most European countries at the starting line.
In addition, under President Paul Kagame Rwanda has successfully implemented a neighbourhood-based truth and reconciliation process that has exorcized the horrors of 1994, bringing about a national catharsis and paving the way to a bright future. Today Rwanda is Africa’s youngest, most densely populated country with a strong, stable and non-corrupt demographically elected government, a staggering 68% of which is female. Tourism and, in particular, Business Events or MICE, has been identified as a key driver for sustainable economic growth. Following our short sojourn in Rwanda we think this is a very smart decision!
Rwanda – air connectivity
We arrived in Rwanda’s capital Kigali on flights from EU hubs in London, Brussels, Instanbul and Amsterdam. The national carrier, RwandAir, already established internationally with direct service to London / Brussels, Dubai, Mumbai is adding routes to Tel Aviv, New York and Guangzhou in 2019. Some of us took the overnight flight with RwandAir from Brussels and enjoyed wonderful service on brand new equipment.
Rwanda Genocide Museum
We spent an intense, deeply emotional afternoon on arrival day at the Genocide Museum in the capital Kigali. Our tour guide mixed elements from her own personal story with the wider genocide narrative that led to countless, brutal deaths. At the museum the story is told without fanfare with static display boards and unsophisticated AV, emerging all the more raw and stark for its simplicity. We left the genocide museum in thoughtful mood, realising that, in our own lifetime, we had encountered a full-on, astonishing example of man’s inhumanity to man.
Rwanda National Parks
The days that followed brought us to Rwanda’s stunning national parks although we missed Akagera National Park which is east of Kigali and, apparently, is a savannah-style plain with wonderful big 5 trekking. Nyungwe Forest National Park, on the other hand, is an steep, undulating rain forest interspersed with lush tea plantations that together create a rich patchwork of green, tope and emerald.
We were taken on a hike along the Igishigishigi Trail and crossed the three bridges of the 200m canopy walkway, the rainforest deep below us. This was followed by an unforgettable stay at the brand new One & Only resort where we were entertained by local dancers as we sipped our soup in the early evening chill around a blazing bonfire. Our dinner was all local, a highlight being a broccoli salad harvested that very day from the Chef’s private garden.
Next came Volcanoes National Park following a long but magnificent scenic drive along the shore of Lake Kivu, one of the great lakes of Africa that divides Rwanda from Democratic Republic of Congo. We stopped regularly along the way captivated by the gentle majesty of the scenery – terraced hillsides planted with banana, maize, beans and tea – and the colourful simplicity of the local people who continuously lined the road, going and coming in clusters and groups from Sunday mass or transporting implausible loads of water, food, fuel and God knows what balanced on their own heads or loaded precariously onto vintage High Nelly bicycles.
The Virunga Mountains straddle Rwanda, Uganda and DRC and Volcanoes National Park is on the Rwandan side of this great volcanic massif. That was our starting point for a privileged, once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a 3 generation family of mountain gorillas who granted us special permission to watch and take copious pictures, as they got on with their everyday lives in the beauty and majesty of the Virunga mountains.
SITE Executive Summit in Rwanda
In fulfilment of our strategy to bring education and best practice to new and emerging incentive travel destinations, we also delivered education and training to over 30 members of the local Rwandan Incentive Travel industry – some of whom are Certified Incentive Specialists (CIS) –presenting on The Fundamentals of Incentive Travel, SITE’s role in the industry and Trends in Incentive Travel. Two panels also discussed Rwanda as an Incentive Travel destination from the perspectives of product and marketing.
During the sojourn high level discussions took place with senior government officials including Clare Akamanzi, Chief Executive Officer and Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwanda Development Board and Nelly Mukazayire, Chief Executive Officer and Frank Murangwa Director of MICE Destination Marketing at the Rwanda Convention Bureau.
Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing & training for Business Events / MICE. Pádraic also serves as Chief Marketing Office for SITE and attended SITE Executive Summit in Rwanda with SITE CEO, Didier Scaillet, SITE President Annamaria Ruffini and SITE Foundation President, John Iannini along with other members of the SITE Board, trustees of the SITE Foundation and additional invited SITE buyer-members from Poland, Belgium and South Africa.