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RWANDA RISING

The latest in Peter Greenberg’s “Royal Tour” series spotlights the renewal of a destination that is combating the perception that tragic events of the past still define its reality.

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, with binoculars, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame on safari in Akagera National Park. CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, with binoculars, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame on safari in Akagera National Park.

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, with binoculars, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame on safari in Akagera National Park.

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, with binoculars, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame on safari in Akagera National Park.

Last summer, Rwandan president Paul Kagame was walking through a field of flowering pyrethrum, a plant that’s a natural mosquito repellent and a cash crop for local villagers. Behind him, their peaks almost obscured by fog, were the Virunga Mountains, where half the world’s endangered mountain gorillas live. He was returning from a ranger-guided trek into Volcanoes National Park to see a gorilla family that had been habituated to human visitors.

The juxtaposition of the fields under cultivation and the entrance to the park is telling in this densely populated country. Among other challenges, Kagame must balance the residents’ need for tillable land and his desire to grow luxury tourism, part of his mission to make this small, landlocked African nation firmly “middle class” by the year 2020.

His visit to the gorillas was recorded as part of a documentary in the occasional PBS series “The Royal Tour,” hosted and organized by CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. Kagame was traveling through the country with Greenberg, production crew in tow, to showcase what this East Central African country has to offer tourists.

(“The Royal Tour” will begin appearing on PBS stations this week, with its premiere Thursday evening on Chicago’s WTTW.)

Tourism is the destination’s leading source of foreign currency, and the sector’s growth outpaces all other parts of the economy. Kagame’s agreement to participate in the show is part of his effort to raise Rwanda’s visibility as an appealing destination to ecotourists and upscale travelers.

Greenberg had invited me to join the president and him during the filming of the “Royal Tour,” and on our way back from the gorilla trek, Kagame and I fell into conversation as we hiked along the well-worn paths that cut through the fields of pyrethrum.

For many Westerners, I said, Rwanda is still synonymous with the 1994 genocide of Tutsis — the president’s ethnic group — by the majority Hutus. How was he going to replace that image and association with its antithesis, leisure tourism?

“We have made a lot of progress, yet it seems the world continues to look at Rwanda through the lens of 1994,” he answered. “They still think of it is as a devastated place. But as you have seen, progress has been made. We have to be clear: We want [tourism promotional efforts, including the “Royal Tour”] to come out in the form of a story that includes where we have come from and what happened here and the process of recovery and rebuilding across the country.

“The situation was tragic, but we have left that ugly picture behind. What I want visitors to see is the transformation that has taken place. Part of the progress has resulted from confronting some deep-felt challenges. I want the world and our people to know that the rebuilding of the nation has not been in vain.”

The road from devastation to a country with five-star hotels and, arguably, the best conditions for viewing mountain gorillas can certainly be woven into Rwanda’s appeal as a tourist destination. Seeing the country’s recovery, he said, “tends to encourage visitors to do even more with us and support our efforts. When they come to Rwanda as tourists, they know that the money they spend is going into the progress that we’re making. And that’s a fact.”

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Rebuilding a national park

Restoring animal populations, a focus of the government, is highlighted in the “Royal Tour.” In addition to visiting protected gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, the show’s crew shot footage at Akagera National Park.

A game park, Akagera suffered multiple blows during the period of the genocide. Its animals were wiped out, and refugees squatted on vast areas within its boundaries. The government, with the help of the Howard G. Buffett (Warren Buffett’s son) Foundation and the tour operator &Beyond, among others, has focused on repopulating species and making the park secure from poachers and squatters. At around 460 square miles, however, the newly demarcated park is only about half the size it was before 1994.

Akagera, adjacent to Tanzania along Rwanda’s eastern border, has much the same look and feel as the savannah-and-low-brush parks in its neighboring country, but as regards wildlife, it’s clearly in a restorative stage. 

Over the course of a four-hour drive, I saw hippos, baboons, impalas, zebras, warthogs, buffaloes, waterbucks, topis, a giraffe, a patch of gray through the trees that I was told was an elephant and a smattering of bird life, including guinea fowl and a kingfisher. Although lions and rhinos have also been reintroduced to the park, our caravan of four-wheel drive vehicles didn’t come across any.

For a first-time safari visitor to Africa, Akagera could be satisfying, possibly even exciting. But those who have seen the best that eastern or southern African game parks have to offer might be more impressed with the ambitious restoration activities than with actual game-viewing at this point in the park’s revival.

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Rwanda two-wheeler, part one

Greenberg’s “Royal Tour” series focuses not only on a country’s head of state and tourist attractions but seeks to familiarize viewers with the people and culture of a country.

On the first day of shooting, Greenberg tried out a mototaxi, the preferred way to get around the capital, Kigali. While many countries offer modified motorcycle vehicles — e.g., Thailand’s tuk-tuk or India’s auto rickshaws — here a passenger is handed a helmet and simply hops on the back of a driver’s cycle, then hangs on tight.

I had been on previous “Royal Tour” productions, and part of the pleasure for me is to watch the crew set up and video scenes. In the case of the mototaxis segment, the motorcycle Greenberg was going to ride was first fitted with small, wide-angle action cameras to capture him as well as his driver’s point of view.

In a city as densely populated as Kigali, it doesn’t take much to draw a crowd, and a production crew, complete with a camera-mounted drone, was enough to stop pedestrian and car traffic, creating some headaches for the show’s director, John Feist. But in the end, he got the shots he wanted.

With the threat of rain looming, Feist decided to postpone a visit to a market. Instead, the crew headed out to Muhazi, the president’s Camp David-like retreat, a few hours away by car. Shortly after arriving, rain poured down, and shooting was restricted to an interview on a second-story porch overlooking a beautiful lake and a walk to see the president’s private herd of cattle, whose long horns put the University of Texas mascot, Bevo, to shame.

A planned one-on-one basketball game and a tennis match between Greenberg and Kagame were postponed. The president is an avid tennis player, and among his house guests that day was former Haitian prime minister (and two-time Haitian Davis Cup team member) Laurent Lamothe, whose planned match with the president was also rained out.

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Rwanda two-wheeler, part two

Even outside the designated attractions, Rwanda’s beauty is impressive. Its countryside is a patchwork quilt of rolling agricultural fields, and its terrain, it turns out, is also a perfect training ground for cyclists and cycling events; the Tour du Rwanda is attracting teams from Europe and North America, and the national cycling team, comprising young adult genocide survivors from both ethnic groups, is a source of great national pride.

“The Royal Tour” includes a scene in which the cycling team, pedaling uphill, blasts by Kagame and Greenberg, who are cruising downhill. It was great to watch the team power by Greenberg’s crew, shooting in a huddle in the middle of the road as the cycling team split formation to zoom around them.

But the very best part of that shoot was when, toward the end, locals who had been watching the production suddenly realized that it was their president under the helmet of one of the two downhill riders. They swarmed up to greet him, singing a song he later translated for me. The lyrics proclaimed that, as Kagame was protected by God when he was leading guerilla fighters in the hills after the genocide, he will now also be protected as he leads the country.

Greenberg likes to incorporate transport of all kinds in his “Royal Tour” series, and after the bike scene was shot, the group headed to a Lake Kivu resort where he taught the president how to operate a personal watercraft.

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A mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park continues his meal undisturbed and undistracted by a presidential visit.

A mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park continues his meal undisturbed and undistracted by a presidential visit.

Guerrilla, meet gorilla

For most visitors, Rwanda’s main attraction is its mountain gorillas. Getting to their habitat requires a bit of a climb through changing terrain, from flat fields through a stand of green bamboo to a thick, vine-filled rainforest. The only constant on the trek was mud. These are, after all, gorillas in the mist, and mist keeps everything moist. The crew sometimes struggled carrying the equipment up to the altitudes where the gorillas hang out.

Kagame lived in those same mountains for years when he was leading the rebel troops who eventually took power after the genocide. He said he hadn’t come across any gorillas when the mountains were his military base of operations, and he was keen to make the trek to see them. When we found and observed a family of the great apes, he seemed truly moved by the encounter.

As fascinating as the gorillas are — this was my second time visiting them, and it remains, in my mind, the world’s top wildlife viewing experience — Kagame puts something higher on his list of Rwandan attractions: “The people and the culture. There is so much: dancing, food, architecture. This is the wealth, the real wealth of Rwanda.”

I do not pretend to understand the subtleties of Rwandan politics or society, but I could see why this man, from a once-despised minority group, generated excitement among locals wherever we went. The recent history of Rwanda is painful to recount, but one leaves the country feeling that the lessons of the past have been difficult but constructive and that the future, in tourism and otherwise, holds great promise.

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RWANDAN PRESIDENT: AIRLIFT TO U.S., HOSPITALITY TRAINING TOP PRIORITIES

Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has been in power since 2000 but has only recently developed a high profile in tourism promotion. Within the past eight months, he has hosted the Corporate Council on Africa’s World Tourism Conference, received a World Tourism Award for “visionary leadership” at World Travel Market and, last week, was presented an award by the World Travel & Tourism Council.

But he has been working quietly on tourism-related projects since at least 2010. The visionary leadership award he received specifically recognized Kagame’s policies supporting reconciliation, sustainable tourism, wildlife conservation and economic development, all of which resulted in more than doubling tourism revenue from $200 million to $404 million from 2010 to 2016. The push for tourism also resulted in the creation of 90,000 jobs in hospitality alone.

Rwanda’s 12% annual growth in tourism from 2010 through 2016 far exceeds the 3.3% benchmark set by the United Nations World Tourism Organization for emerging markets. About 1.3 million tourists visited Rwanda in 2016, and arrivals are predicted to grow 15% in 2018.

The mountain gorilla population in Rwanda has also increased, by 26% since 2010, and the government has made significant strides in reducing poaching: In 2013, more than 2,000 snares were collected from parks, but only one was discovered in 2017. Poachers appear to have moved on to less secure areas; in 2013, 200 poachers were arrested, but no arrests were made last year.

In an interview with Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann, Kagame spoke about these successes and the challenges the country still faces.

Arnie Weissmann: Rwanda is the second most densely populated country in Africa. It is also primarily agrarian. You’re interested in promoting game reserves, but how do you balance that with the needs of Rwandan farmers for more land?

Paul Kagame: Initially, there was no barrier between the park animals and farmers at Akagera [National Park], and they were a danger to each other. The farmers’ animals would get killed, and they would retaliate against the wild animals in the park. We compensated farmers to try to halt retaliation, but that wasn’t enough. 

So we now have an electrified fence around the perimeter. Without the fence it was difficult to police the entire border. We also have well-trained guards, a dedicated helicopter and we’ll be getting another one. It’s important to make sure that the animals feel they are in a secure environment, so they can reproduce.

AW: Are you still compensating farmers?

PK: We redistribute 10% of the money the parks collect.

AW: Regarding the gorillas, my understanding is that the number of gorillas is increasing, but the protected habitat is shrinking.

PK: Again, we found that people had just been taking over land in the park, a very big chunk. We had to stop the encroachment. We created a boundary — we planted the trees, not an electrified fence — but we also created a dialogue. They, too, get 10% of the revenue collected from the gorilla visits. We want to find a way to enlarge the park, perhaps through additional compensation, but the place where the gorillas are right now is big enough.

AW: You’ve agreed with Kenya and Uganda to honor each other’s visas. Often in similar situations, some of the parties are afraid other countries will take their tourists. Are you also working with them to organize tours that cross borders?

PK: We are trying, we are trying. It hasn’t gone far yet, but the idea is to make sure that we work together. I’m involved in those discussions, and they’re not very difficult, because we all see the benefits.

AW: You now have a national carrier, RwandAir. You recently started service to London. Is the U.S. in your plans?

PK: Yes, it’s in the cards.

AW: Do you know when that might be?

PK: As soon as we get the required clearances.

AW: Will it fly to New York?

PK: That’s the first place we have in mind.

AW: So you have a new airline, and phase one of your new international airport is scheduled to open in 2019. You also have a fair number of Western hotel brands and a conference center. Do you envision Kigali becoming a hub in Africa for meetings, incentives, conventions?

PK: We are aiming to achieve that. The airline is very young, so we want to be very careful about how we grow to ensure the sustainability of that growth.

We have Marriott, Radisson Blu, DoubleTree by Hilton [in Kigali]. Sheraton is building apartments and wants to do a hotel following that, and a golf course is going in nearby. A group from Morocco is interested in investing, big time, and we were contacted recently by Accor.

Outside Kigali, One & Only has one property near Nyungwe Forest National Park and another, Gorilla’s Nest, near Volcanos National Park.

AW: But the country has a shortage of trained hospitality workers. What are you doing to try to alleviate that?

PK: We’re training people here in Rwanda and others abroad, in Switzerland. Some are placed in internships in Dubai. A lot of training has been taking place. 

AW: What percentage of your visitors are from the U.S.?

PK: The U.S. is the largest percentage, around a third of all international visitors.

AW: Your fee to trek to see the gorillas is higher than in Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Do you feel that’s justifiable because demand to see them from Rwanda is greater?

PK: It’s a trial run. We have been encouraging high-end tourism for practical reasons. We are a small country with small parks, so we want only a limited number of visitors. The parks are precious, and we can’t have everybody accessing them or they will become run down. So we put a premium on the experience. And there has been good response so far.

AW: Is there anything else you would want to say about Rwanda tourism?

PK: Security. Safety, whether for Rwandans or visitors. People can walk around in the middle of the night anywhere. That is important. And we fight corruption. Nobody’s going to come and ask visitors to pay for things they don’t want or shouldn’t have to pay for. We keep doing things to make Rwanda more attractive. We really want to create high-end value for visitors.

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