Bringing tourism into the community

 

yolande_blog Yolande Cole

The five hundred dollars, the hour-long scramble through stinging nettle, sinking brush and sharp branches, and the 4 a.m. wake up call were all completely worth it for the moment when we sat two metres away from Guhonda, the silverback of the Sabyinyo gorilla tribe.

The animal sat silently, staring directly into our camera lenses as our guide called out in gorilla language to the burly animal. In between the shutter clicks and elbows clambering for the best photo op spot, the sense of awe at being so close to the creature was palpable.

It’s this kind of moment that prompts 14,000 visitors a year to fork out hundreds of dollars to visit this lush green national park made famous in part by Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist.

Guhonda

But while most tourists experience this brief encounter with their genetic cousins, many do not stick around the country to see what else the Land of a Thousand Hills has to offer.

This is what is driving the Rwanda government and several tour agencies to launch community-based tourism projects in the Volcanoes National Park region, and across the country, to entice visitors to spend more time and money in Rwanda. For example, the park employs former poachers as porters to carry backpacks for hikers. In exchange for employment, the porters are educated in conservation practices and encouraged to help protect the park from potential poachers.

Several tour companies in Rwanda are now operating on the model of responsible or community-based tourism, which encourages locals to use their traditional skills to build sustainable businesses. It’s seen as a way to give back to the residents who call these natural areas home, and to encourage environmental conservation on the part of the people who live around the national parks.

As part of this recent story for Rwanda Focus newspaper on the community tourism trend, I visited two cultural villages at the foot of the Virunga Mountains and learned about the friendly, welcoming and talented people involved in some of these projects.

Here are a few photos that I took during my visit.

Leonidas Barora

Charismatic Leonidas Barora was a gorilla poacher in Volcanoes National Park until two years ago. Now he teaches community members and visitors traditional dancing and archery at Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, run by Eco-Tours.

Dancers

The cultural village, located at the foot of Mount Sabyinyo, employs local community members to provide dancing, drumming, traditional healing and other cultural demonstrations to visitors.
Drummers

Dancer, cultural village

The Kinigi Cultural Village, also located just below Mount Sabyinyo, has only been operating as a community tourism project for about a year. When we arrived, they hadn’t seen visitors in a few months, but the locals were very friendly. After welcoming us to their community with music and dance, some of them told us about growing up in the forest and what their lives are like in the village.

Kinigi Cultural Village

Through their share of government-allocated tourism revenues, the community has been able to make some basic repairs to their homes, buy animals and improve health, education and water facilities.

Now they are hoping that by sharing their traditional culture with visitors, their community will continue to grow.

Song, Kinigi Cultural Village

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