Before global pandemic of COVID-19, tourism was the biggest and fastest growing economic sector. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates reveal that in 2020, international tourist arrivals could decline by 20% to 30%, translating into the loss of 300 to 450 US$ billion in international receipts (exports). This is due to border closures and restrictions in passengers air travel that most countries introduced in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Rwanda closed its borders for passenger flights on the 20th March 2020 and ordered closure of business other than those that serve for essential needs. In Rwanda, tourism is one of the key sectors of economic development, and was the country’s largest foreign exchange earner, contributing to 14.9% of the GDP, and has generated over 90,000 jobs representing about 13% of the total employment. Rwanda’s tourism is founded on its four major national parks, and its capital Kigali is known for hosting multiple international events, including the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in 2020, that has been postponed due to the spread of the coronavirus. Due to its effort in leveraging economic development opportunities, in 2018 Rwanda was ranked as the second easiest place to do business in Africa by the World Bank and has been awarded for its leadership in tourism and economic competitiveness by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the World Economic Forum respectively. With a vibrant aviation sector through Rwandair in addition to other airlines serving Kigali, coupled with “Visit Rwanda” partnership deals; Rwanda has been receiving over one million tourists every year since 2015.
The private sector was active in recent years building hotels and restaurants, tour guide and travel agencies while local communities benefited from this sector directly or indirectly through jobs in hospitality, small businesses in food, agriculture, transportation, culture and crafts; conservation and anti-poaching initiatives.
Since the beginning of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was manifested in Rwanda resulting in the taking of serious preventive measures such as in and out travel restrictions, suspended events and flights. According to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) report, Rwanda tourism sector experienced huge losses estimated at about $7.6 million in tourism and hospitality industry, while at least 3,888 employees in the sector have been temporally laid off.
Some of the measures being taken by the Rwandan government to bounce back tourism sector after COVID-19 crisis include the promotion of domestic tourism, establishment of heavy promotions to attract international tourists, and negotiation for credit incentives for the private sector. According to Clare Akamanzi, the Chief Executive of Rwanda Development Board (RDB), operations in tourism sector will be supported through special funds to support affected businesses to access affordable loans with good terms for working capital and other needs. This will serve as a recovery fund, to help businesses, especially micro-, small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), entrepreneurs, and workers to adapt and thrive in a new post-crisis era, for example by fostering innovation and digital technologies that enable sustainable practices and seamless travel.
Towards a greener pathway for Post-Pandemic Rwanda Eco-tourism industry development
Sustainable tourism aspires to be more energy efficient and climate sound, consume less water, minimize waste, conserve biodiversity, generate local income and integrate local communities with a view to improving livelihoods and reducing poverty amongst others. Seemingly to different countries worldwide, the tourism sector in Rwanda considerably contribute to the emission of GHG (Tourism Sector contribute about 5% of GHGs emission Worldwide) and if measures are not taken post COVID-19 outbreak when tourism might grow substantially under a business-as-usual scenario. The rapid growth of tourism sector potentially links to energy-intensive transportation preferences, high dependency on non-renewable energy for lighting, cooking, heating and cooling, cleaning, and others. Other challenges include excessive water consumption, discharge of untreated water, solid and liquid waste generation and local biodiversity degradation.
In line with the Rwandan government to support affected tourism businesses and livelihoods of those suddenly unemployed people; there is a need for more innovative and sustainable solutions that would help bounce back those businesses, create jobs, at the same time facilitating the achievement of sustainable and green economic development. Therefore, Schemes to engage workers in the tourism sector and supporting industries through capacity building; re-purposing skills development and provide income to sustain people and economies can help reduce COVID-19 impacts in Rwanda. In addition, responses to the COVID-19 health crisis are also an opportunity to put Rwanda on a new path of sustainable and inclusive growth by boosting resilience, clean energy transition, circular economy-based and creation of green jobs.
The Global Green Growth Institute suggests a 1-year project worth USD 10 million that would support Rwanda tourism industry enhance its capacities to embark on eco-tourism path using in its green growth facilities which would reduce operating costs for tourism businesses and create green jobs for those people that were vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis. The overall aim is to build synergies with Rwanda Tourism operators, particularly the private sector by identifying missed opportunities for clean energy (solar PV panels and solar water heaters), sustainable water consumption (rainwater harvesting systems), waste water management and biodiversity conservation (landscape restoration, development of green and public spaces); therefore coming up with quick-wins and affordable solutions will help address challenges in eco-tourism and the COVID-19 effects to their businesses and employment. The project would also support the implementation of District Development Strategies 2018-2024 where tourism is seen as a trigger towards employment creation and poverty alleviation; and would implement master plans for secondary cities where, again, eco-tourism is seen as one of the main factors of green economic growth.
These opportunities will be apprehended by using the existing partnership among GGGI, Rwanda government, development partners, tourism operators and the communities they work within, by enabling the private sector to invest in green technologies, empower workers with new skills that will enable them having access to green and long-term jobs.