From Ravaged Nation To Tourist Haven, How Rwanda Rebranded Itself

By Andrew Nagy
07 January 2019
Photo credit: One & Only Nyungwe House
In just over two decades after a devastating civil war, Rwanda became travel’s best kept secret. Welcome to your next adventure

The men and women working on the tea plantations of Rwanda like it when it rains – rain translates to dollars.

If you’re a picker, your work in the field is rewarded in two ways: quality and quantity. Snatch the youngest, freshest leaves and your rate goes up. Pick from the rest and you better make sure that your bag has some heft. Rain makes your bag heavy.

If the numbers are to be believed, Rwanda’s two annual rainy seasons don’t put tourists off either – there were 932,000 of them as of 2016 – and that’s a figure that has only increased since.

But then the weather never really was the issue. In 1994, Rwanda was brutally torn apart by civil war and even now, 24 years later, the horrifying images beamed out on a CNN rolling news feed remain scorched on a global subconscious. However, when aligned with thoughtful planning, time can help a healing process. Now, Rwanda is forging a very different reputation, and it’s one that has brought a country back from the brink.

Any marketing expert worth his Zegna power suit will tell you that a rebranding exercise needs a focal point. In Rwanda, that’s the easy part. Here, the tree-covered mountains slant upwards at outrageous angles from the dirt roads below. If you catch the view right – just before sunset and ideally after a brief downpour – it’s hard to believe that there could be a more beautiful sight in the world. This is quit-your-job-and-start-a-new-life territory. Sell-your-sneaker-collection-and-live-your-best-life territory. 

Rwanda

Photo Credit: Conde Nast

In 2000, the country launched Vision 2020 – an ambitious plan to transform a broken nation into a middle-income country with a vibrant private sector, one with increased health and education services and solid governance. Part of that vision involved a framework for the country’s tourism sector, too, with a focus on high value eco-tourists, adventurers and business travellers. Millions in global aid was poured into revitalising the nation’s bare-bones infrastructure, making it safer, cleaner and more environmentally friendly. It’s a vision that is already baring fruit: A plastics ban has been in place since 2006, the World Bank rates it as the easiest country to do business with in Continental Africa, and the World Economic Forum recently rated it as the ninth safest country in the world.

Not that Rwanda has completely buried its past. Dark tourism is flourishing here much like the rest of the world, and its museums and memorials serve as a powerful reminder. While the often-murky ethics of a dark tourist are open to debate, you could say that the best way to appreciate this country is to first see it from its lowest ebb, so make the Genocide Memorial your first port of call in capital city Kigali. A short ride from the centre of town in Gisozi, this is the last resting place for 250,000 victims of the genocide. It also hosts thought-provoking permanent installations that offer stark perspective of, not only what happened, but also how far it has come since.

Kigali is one of Africa’s rising cities, and the star of Rwanda’s rejuvenation is fast gaining reputation as an economic and tech hub. As a result, development here is flourishing. From luxury hotel chains to designer malls, modern housing developments to galleries and museums, the capital deserves to be more than just a staging post for your journey to one of the country’s three national parks.

But don’t be fooled by the modernisation and newfound order, there remains a beautiful chaos here. Kigali buzzes on every free space of path, road and awkward in-between. This is madness in a fake premier league shirt and the occasional pair of dodgy Off-White sneakers. Women head to market with bags of produce balanced precariously on their heads, while men wait by the roadside for their white-vanned lift to work. Children dart in-between the two – all neat uniforms and minor mayhem – on their way to school. Nobody stands looking at their phone. The city is vibrant and present.

Rwanda

Photo credit: Conde Nast

The best way to get involved is to jump straight in. After your visit to the memorial, take an afternoon stroll around the stalls of Kimironko market – a vast warehouse of Rwandan craft and produce. This is where the locals go – take an hour or two and see the city through their eyes. Once you’re done, jump on the fat red-cushioned seat of one of the city’s bicycle taxis and head to Inema Arts Centre. Easily the best place to enjoy work by the country’s emerging artists, this is more than just a gallery; it’s proof positive that Rwanda is self-healing through cultural networks as well. 

End the day in style by embracing a thriving restaurant scene. There are some great Korean joints and Indian restaurants here in particular but, hey, you’re in Africa. Head to Repub Lounge for a luxe take on Rwandan cuisine – consider the liboke chicken a requisite.

Cards on the table: the re-energised city of Kigali is well worth your time, but Rwanda’s big pull will always lie in the verdant hills of its three main national parks. And while we’ll respect you for visiting one, to miss the trifecta is to miss something vital about what’s happening in Rwanda right now.

Start with Volcanoes National Park in the north. Here, you’ll hike through bamboo and rainforest for a rare glimpse of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Small groups trek three hours to spend an hour in the company of a family of gorillas, creating what is probably the only justifiable image to include with a #lifegoals on your Instagram account. It doesn’t come cheap of course ($1,680 per person), but then these moments rarely do. Balance your current account woes with the fact that Rwanda is probably the safest country in the world that you can make this journey – Uganda and DRC being the only other options – and that much of the money made goes back into local conservation and the fight against poaching.

Rwanda

Photo credit: Conde Nast

A four hour drive east will take you to Akagera National Park, home to one of the most ground-breaking conservation projects in the country. It wasn’t only Rwanda’s human population that suffered during the civil war, the wildlife was decimated, too. But thanks to significant investment, the park began a process of reintroducing regionally extinct species just over a decade ago. Seven South African lions arrived in 2007 – the first in Rwanda for 15 years – and were followed by 20 eastern black rhinoceroses last year. As a result, Akagera is now home to all of Africa’s big five.

Finally, head south to Nyungwe Forest National Park to enjoy what is probably the best preserved example of montane rainforest in Africa. Home to a staggering amount of wildlife, including roughly 25 per cent of Africa’s primate population, Nyungwe is a conservation priority for Rwanda, and trekking through its lush landscape is worth the long drive from Kigali. The 1020 km² forest is the location for another planned species reintroduction, too, with the hope being that elephants can return to the area in the very near future.

When it rains in Rwanda, it leaves a low-hanging mist over the hills that mingles lazily with the canopy of the trees. It clears the air like nothing else, allowing for a total mind and body reset. Finally, the skies appear to be clearing. Rwanda is one of the world's last remaining great adventures. This is no time for a rain-check.