Rwanda – The Impact of a Guidebook

Written by Janice Booth


I first went to Rwanda in February 2000, to try to discover what had happened to a Rwandan friend from whom I’d heard nothing since the 1994 genocide. I assumed he was dead, and I didn’t expect to enjoy my visit. The media were portraying a grim, inhospitable country, deeply scarred by the horrors of 1994, still volatile and dangerous. I had no thought whatever of tourism or writing a travel guide.

In fact the amazing beauty of the country and the charm of its people captivated me straight away. I jolted along twisty, pot-holed roads in battered public transport, feeling completely safe. The views were stunning. People were still traumatised and grieving, but quietly friendly. I even trekked to see the mountain gorillas. In two weeks I encountered only two other tourists; in those days the opening question, when meeting a non-Rwandan, was ‘who are you with?’, on the assumption that it would be one of the various aid agencies whose new, white 4x4s were so conspicuous in this damaged land. Back in Kigali I faxed Hilary Bradt and persuaded her that a guidebook was essential. Fortunately Philip Briggs was available to co-author it – and the guide, first published in 2001, is fast approaching its fourth edition, with Philip now in full charge.

There’s no doubt that it helped Rwanda tremendously as the country struggled to recover. Before the genocide, tourism had been the third-highest earner of foreign exchange, after coffee and tea, and regaining this income was a priority. The existence of a reputable guidebook reassured would-be visitors that the country was now safe and accessible, and encouraged tour operators to return. It was also read by aid workers, diplomats, investors – and even Rwandans who had been raised in long-term exile abroad, and first set foot in their home country only after the genocide had ended.

Tourists returned, in increasing numbers. Tourism has now overtaken coffee and tea as a source of foreign income. Hotels have been built and upgraded; visitor attractions and facilities have been expanded. Permits to visit the mountain gorillas sell out fast in the busier seasons. But – how much impact has this had at grass-roots level, on villagers unconnected with tourism as such? Have the ‘small people’, away from the beaten track, benefited from this influx of dollars, sterling and euro? Did our guide’s usefulness extend to them too? I wanted to know, so I returned to Rwanda in February this year: exactly nine years after my first visit.

Back in 2000, my daytime flight from Brussels to Kigali carried mainly personnel attached to the various aid agencies, embassies and other official bodies. Their faces were strained and the mood was sombre. Several seats were empty. In 2009, on the same daytime flight, this time full to capacity, there was a lively buzz of conversation and a much more colourful mix: tourists of various nationalities, Rwandans visiting or returning home, mothers with babies, businesspeople working on their files or laptops. A similar change is now visible in urban areas throughout the country; but how were the more rural locations faring?

I spent the next three days thumping along mud roads in a 4×4, far from the relative comfort of the tourist regions, visiting outlying hamlets deep in Rwanda’s green, hilly and breathtakingly beautiful countryside; and here I saw that the increase in tourism is affecting far more than just the tourist industry. Of the money paid by tourists to visit Rwanda’s three National Parks, 5% is earmarked to finance or boost small-scale local development in the areas around these parks, so a visitor buying a gorilla permit or enjoying the wildlife of Akagera may, for example, indirectly be helping to fund a water tap or tank, a school classroom or dormitory, a beekeeping cooperative, a brick kiln, mushroom growing, a wall to protect against buffalo, or dozens of other intensely practical projects at the heart of rural life. It goes further: some recipients are now expanding their activities, like the beekeepers who have earned enough from their honey to purchase a small grain grinder, and vegetable farmers who sell their surplus (cabbages, tomatoes, potatoes, beans…) to local hotels. Poachers around the parks are abandoning their damaging ‘trade’ in favour of these more settled jobs. From the same fund the Tourist Board also offers emergency grants, most recently to help villagers made homeless by an earthquake in the west of the country, and it holds fund-raising events, such as the annual Gorilla-naming Ceremony, to supplement the 5% so that more support can be given.

Visiting these small rural projects, I found my questions well and reassuringly answered. Whatever help our guidebook gave to Rwanda’s tourist industry in the early days, as the country struggled to emerge from the shadow of the genocide, has indeed filtered through to villagers far removed from the tourist trail. Tourists who visit Rwanda’s amazing National Parks are helping to fund activities they may never see, but which are a life-line for the local people. It’s just the achievement I had hoped for.

As I’d feared, my friend was killed in the genocide, as were his wife, their baby daughter, his father, a brother, a sister, cousins and various other relatives. That’s how it was, back in 1994. However, in 2000 I located another brother and his niece Chantal, with whom I’ve remained in steady contact. She has emerged from the horror as a poised, beautiful, professional young woman with a responsible job and a happy family. I’m so proud of our friendship. In February this year I played with her two little daughters: part of the new, post-genocide generation that will carry Rwanda forward into the future. It is an astonishing – and humbling – country.

The week after I returned home to England, I received an early-morning phone call from the Rwandan Ambassador in London. His Excellency President Paul Kagame was over on a visit; could I come up to London straight away? I rushed for a train! Then, in a day that must have been packed with important meetings, the President found time to meet me privately in order to express his appreciation and continued support for our guide. (Back in 2000 I had told him about the impending publication of the first edition, and he had been similarly gracious then about making time to see me.) No other Head of State has extended this kind of courtesy in connection with a Bradt guide; and I think very few other Bradt guides have indirectly had so much impact on the ‘small people’ outside the tourist industry. I feel very privileged indeed to have been involved.