Responsible tourism in Rwanda

After many years of horrors, peace now reigns in Rwanda. And we believe that there are few better ways for us to help sustain and promote this peace than through tourism. One perfect symbol of this peace is gorilla tourism, as Rwanda is considered by many wildlife experts to have one of the most successful conservation stories in the world. As one of the only places to see gorillas safely in the wild, Rwanda has partnered with Uganda to come up with some ‘gorilla rules’ to ensure that the species are protected from the negative impacts of tourism.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has always seen the bigger picture – which is that we must always strive to protect and support the people of Rwanda and ensure that they gain from tourism, not be negatively impacted by it. The organisation was set up to support the seminal work of the late Dian Fossey of gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Par, and as they so rightly state: “We believe that when people thrive, gorillas thrive.” Read on for more ways in which you can help see and support the bigger picture in Rwanda.

People & culture in Rwanda

Peacetime sensitivity

It is vital to remember that Rwanda is still recovering from a civil war and the 1994 genocide in which approximately a million people were murdered. Between April and mid-July 1994, nearly 70 per cent of the Tutsi population was killed by Hutu extremists. Millions of people were displaced as the world looked on in horror. The grieving process will surely take more than a generation, so please don’t invade Rwandans’ privacy by asking probing questions about the country’s recent painful history. Many lost relatives and friends. People still don’t want to discuss it but try to move on.

In 2004, just a decade after the genocide, the government banned ethnic distinctions. It has been wiped off ID cards and government forms, and no longer appears in school books, although the genocide is discussed as a way of learning from the past. This move to ban references to ethnicity has been controversial, but also considered necessary by many so that people are no longer defined as Hutu, Twa or Tutsi, but simply as Rwandan. As a visitor it is important, therefore, to note that discussing someone’s ethnicity is not only insensitive but also illegal.
What you can do
Read up in advance of your travels to Rwanda about the history of the civil war and genocide and also visit the many memorial sites around the country. These include Kigali Genocide Museum and Memorial, Nyamata and Ntarama Genocide Memorials. Reading recommendations include:
Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld

The godfathers of the godfathers

The real captains of the successful conservation of gorillas in Rwanda’s national parks are the guides, trackers and porters. Over the years, there has been a history of community conflict when it comes to conservation, with gorillas being a lucrative source of income when sold for bushmeat. By training local communities as expert guides or offering employment as porters on treks, the tourism industry supports a much more sustainable way of earning a living. Some people do wonder where their hefty permit fee is going to, but hopefully this answers that question.
What you can do
Do consider hiring a porter when on a gorilla safari. There are always more porters than there is work, and many of the men and women will have walked miles to get there just to get a day’s work, so it is really worth using them. The going rate is about £9-£13 but people often tip on top of that as well, so please include that in your budget. As with all cases of wildlife conflict, we need to show local people that gorillas are worth more alive than dead. If your tour operator doesn’t encourage the use of a porter, question them on that, and just go for it anyway.
Paul Calcutt at our supplier Natural World Safaris:

“The first time I used a porter to carry my daypack, I felt a bit ridiculous getting someone to carry such a small thing, until I started asking questions about why there were so many porters offering their services, and where they had come from, and then I realised that I would feel like a bit of an idiot if I didn’t use one now”.

Environment & wildlife in Rwanda

Gorillas rule & gorilla rules

The wildlife authorities of Rwanda work continuously in partnership with their neighbours in Uganda, and have created a set of official ‘gorilla rules’. The reason for strict rules is so that gorillas are exposed to as little human contact as possible and, when they are, it must be very low key. Once you reach your allotted gorilla group, you can spend a maximum of an hour with them, traveling in a group of up to eight people, and you won’t be crowding around them to see who can get the best picture. The only picture in Rwanda, as far as conservationists are concerned, is a healthy one for gorillas. There are also very strict rules to stop spreading disease and bacteria. These are as follows:

Do not go gorilla trekking if you think there is any risk of you being ill Always wash your hands before your trek Keep your voice low Do not touch the gorillas. The guides will ensure that you keep a minimum 7-metre distance at all times Do not eat or drink while you are near the gorillas. This is to avoid morsels of drink or food falling in the gorillas’ habitat, which can then increase the risk of disease transmission Keep down low and in a submissive state Do not use flash photography. If you need to cough or sneeze when you are near the gorillas, turn away and cover your nose and mouth

What you can do

Read more in our responsible gorilla watching guide. Also, there are many international conservation organisations overseeing how gorilla and other primate tourism develops, such as WWF , International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Jane Goodall Institute, Roots and Shoots and Born Free. Money doesn’t fall from the trees of the rainforests to help highlight best practice in conservation, so do please give generously.

Responsible tourism tips

In 2008, the Rwandan government boldly instated a country-wide plastic bag ban in an effort to promote environmental conservation. There is no bag tax; they just banned the lot of them and so not only are they not available, they will be taken from you at the airport if you arrive carrying one. Respect local people and don’t take photos of them without asking permission first. Photography of government buildings, airports, military sites and public monuments is prohibited, and could result in arrest. You will be using your camera a lot, but in Rwanda it is difficult to dispose of batteries responsibly. So take them home with you please or use rechargeables. Public taxis, or twegerane, are often stopped at military or police checkpoints. This is routine, so don’t worry. It is to check the drivers’ licence, etc. Always carry a photocopy of your passport with you at all times in case you are stopped, even when traveling with a tour operator or driver guide. Rwanda is a conservative country and keeping your body well covered is in keeping with local culture. You will discover that Rwandans have quiet nobility about them, too. There is a great respect for elders, for example. They don’t like confrontation or big emotional gestures. They deal with things quietly and politely. It’s a quirky one but many Rwandans, especially of the older generation, are very superstitious and one thing that definitely doesn’t go down well is whistling. Especially at night. And definitely never for women, as that means they are women of the night, apparently. Don’t judge a country by its whistling hang ups, however. Because according to the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Rwanda comes fourth in the world for gender equality, after Iceland, Norway and Finland. You have to scroll all the way down to number 15 to find the UK. Eating in public is not the done thing in Rwanda. It is considered rude. Not on the street, on transport and even at some social occasions if people don’t know one another. Things are slowly changing, and you will start to see people snacking on peanuts or popcorn on long bus journeys, for example. Going out to restaurants is more popular now but only with international influences. City cafes often serve mélange which is a buffet of potatoes, bananas, beans, rice, cassava, salads and sometimes meat. Note, these aren’t ‘all you can eat, fill your face’ style. They are one plate only and so you will get funny looks if you keep topping up.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ryan M. Bolton] [Ruhrengeri - locals: Philip Kromer] [Congregation: Philip Kromer] [Guide: Justin Raycraft] [Gorilla: Philip Kromer]