Rwanda has undergone a remarkable renaissance since the genocide that shocked the world in 1994. Belise Kariza, of the Rwanda Development Board, tells Laura Griffith-Jones why now is the time to go
What was your childhood like?
I was brought up in Bujumbura, Burundi, where my parents moved in the 1950s when the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. My childhood was happy and normal — it was nothing special. I went to school and I played with friends. As a family, we used to go on holiday in Rwanda, and other countries in and out of Africa. My parents wanted to ensure that we grew up to be open-minded people, so travel was part of our education.
What is your role at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB)?
The RDB is a government agency whose vision is to transform the country into a dynamic global hub for business, investment and innovation. Our mission is to fast-track economic development by enabling private sector growth. My position is Chief Tourism Officer, so I am responsible for tourism and conservation.
Is the RDB succeeding in its mission?
How did you get into the tourism industry?
I started this role in 2015. Before that, I was in the private sector but I have always found tourism and travel very interesting.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Everything really! I love that I get to contribute to developing my country. I love that I am paid to talk about it and showcase how beautiful it is. I love that I can sit down and think about how we can double the number of tourists next year and discuss big questions such as how we can use tourism to help our people and reduce poverty. Every day is a new experience. It’s definitely not boring; it’s very stimulating and rewarding. But most of all, I love to travel — and this role forces me to open my eyes and learn from others.
How does money from tourism filter through to the people?
We have a tourism revenue sharing scheme, whereby five per cent goes to those who live in the areas around the parks. A further five per cent goes into a Special Guarantee Fund available to resolve human-wildlife conflict issues, such as providing compensation for farmers whose livestock is killed. Wildlife and conservation are fundamental for sustainable tourism, so educating the people is crucial. We teach them about how they can benefit from tourism, with more jobs, greater income, new schools and hospitals. This, in turn, reduces poaching.
Where is your favourite place in Rwanda, and why?
I fell in love with Buhanga Eco Park in the Musanze District. It is a forest landscape with a rich history. It is considered a sacred area and you can really sense there is something deeply spiritual about it. My second favourite spot is Lake Kivu, a wonderful place to relax. They are developing watersports and other activities there, making it a great choice for a vacation.
What makes Rwanda special?
The brand we are promoting is: ‘Remarkable Rwanda’. We are unique because of our history and what the people have been through. In addition to this, we have a diversity of attractions, from our primates and other wildlife to our spectacular landscapes — ours is the Land of a Thousand Hills. Many people simply add a short visit to Rwanda’s gorillas on to a longer holiday, but the country merits a standalone trip.
Is it true that you are getting the Big Five soon?
Yes, it is. Akagera National Park already has four of the Big Five, but very excitingly, African Parks is bringing rhino there early next year.
Tell me something surprising about the country.
Rwanda is the safest country in Africa and the fifth safest in the world. There is no crime here — none at all. Everything is organised and very clean. It is easy to travel here; roads are good. And there are many good accommodation options, more and more. We even have a Marriott now!
So foreign investment is on the up?
It is indeed. Both Radisson Blu and Marriott are opening soon, which is a superb stamp of approval, and we believe many more international brands will follow. People are learning that Rwanda is an easy place to do business.
What is the 10-year plan for Rwandan tourism?
Our targets include product development and diversification — for example, there is more to Rwanda than gorillas! We are also concentrating on domestic tourism, as well as investing heavily in infrastructure and marketing.
What’s next on your personal travel bucket list?
To go to Mount Bisoke, an active volcano in the Virunga Mountains. This would be a fun and demanding adventure, and I like a challenge. I’ve never seen a crater lake before so it would be something a bit different!