Tourism captains from the region are facing a daunting task of getting enough clientele to sustain their key attractions until foreign visitors from their main source markets return.
In East Africa, tourists come to relax on the pristine white sands of Zanzibar and Diani, while others gather to watch the great migration of the wildebeest from the safari-rich plains of Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
The region's rich flora and fauna has something for everyone looking for adventure or relaxation.
But for much of the year, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were hardly any safari vehicles driving through the endless plains searching for a glimpse of wildlife.
Save for a few zealous tourists from Europe, the US and Asia, who had pre-booked their travel between September and December, tourism players are largely banking on domestic and regional travellers to keep the industry alive as they work towards recovery.
At the recent Africa Tourism Leaders Forum (ATLF) in Kigali, tourism industry players said the earliest the industry could recover from the effects of Covid-19 is in two years.
“The question is, how do we sustain tourism products such that by the time travellers come in there will be products to consume,” said Fred Odek, the chair of the East African Tourism Platform (EATP), and managing director of Silver Africa, a tour and travel company from Kenya. Since March, Odek said, the regional tourism industry has lost up to 82 percent of its cash flow, with the number likely to go up to 92 percent, according to data from the East African Business Council.
With this in mind, I took a trip to the touristic town of Gisenyi in Rubavu District to see for myself how the industry is coping.
Michel Zimurinda always looks forward to the weekend, even in these times of the Covid-19 pandemic that has dampened the tourism sector from which he earns a living.
He manages and operates water adventures at Inzozi Beach Hotel.
The hotel is braving the Covid-19 disruptions to stay open. It boasts a private beach area and fitness centre. The facility is located 8km from Gisenyi town, along a scenic route that curves along Lake Kivu.
Activities include kayaking, speed boating, paddling, fishing, jet skiing, and group packages like family boat rides.
Before Covid-19 hit, Zimurinda used to host both local and foreign tourists, some from Kigali, DRC and beyond, on all days of the week. But now they only come on the weekend, which he makes sure he makes the most of.
With the borders between Rwanda and DRC still closed to incoming visitors, foreign tourists are still hesitant to come, thus Zimurinda is banking on domestic tourism.
In order to stay afloat, hotels in Gisenyi have come up with attractive wedding products — which include honeymoon packages as well as products for destination wedding guests. The packages have proved beneficial to other tourism businesses in the area.
I was in Gisenyi for a friend’s wedding, together with many other guests who included entire families. We stayed at Hill View Hotel, located right on the edge of Lake Kivu, and were charged $70 for a double room.
I shared the room with a friend and we split the cost, which was a reasonable price considering the location, ambience and the service. We had a three-course breakfast the following morning.
After checking out that Sunday, our next stop was Inzozi Beach Hotel, as many of us wanted to enjoy the water games, ride the jet ski, and swim in the lake. Even those who hadn’t planned to, ended up participating in at least one of the water adventures.
A five-minute ride on a jet ski cost Rwf5,000 ($5), swimming in the lake was Rwf2,000 ($2), which comes with a clean towel, and a boat ride for eight people was Rwf2,000 ($2) each.
By the time we arrived the place already had other leisure seekers from Kigali, many of whom we knew, having come for a weekend by the lake.
Zimurinda says paddling costs Rwf2,000 ($2) per person, in a boat of four people, and fishing costs Rwf25,000 ($25) for 40 minutes: A boat ride to the hot springs and a visit to the methane gas project costs Rwf30,000 ($30).
Kayaking for one hour costs Rwf20,000 ($20), including teaching and guiding fees, while a speed boat costs Rwf30,000 ($30), but it can even go for $600 if the boat will be used for a whole day.
He says business is beginning to pick up as more people are slowly starting to come back to enjoy water adventures. He is now waiting for the borders and bars to be opened.
By the end of the weekend, Zimurinda had made about Rwf300,000 ($300) from the jet ski. He used to make double that pre-Covid-19 times.
He has been in the business for the past six years and he says the highlight was in 2018 when he rode on a jet ski with Rwandan President Paul Kagame while filming the documentary Rwanda: The Royal Tour.
Zimurinda also fondly remembers the time he rode with the King of Morocco on his visit to Rwanda in 2016.
Tourism products and accommodation prices across the region have significantly dropped to attract more traffic.
Sheraton Kampala Hotel in Uganda that used to charge $750 per night currently charges at $110; Sese Islands full-board package used to cost $200, and is now at $60; and Kigali Serena Hotel has come up with more affordable holiday packages.
“The market is trying to adjust to accommodate local tourists, but also come up with concessional prices for foreign tourists,” said Richard Kawere, the CEO of Uganda Tourism Association.
Speaking at the ATLF last month, he said the market is trying to maximise the small window opening in travels, and through virtual marketing to create confidence in their source markets.
“We are seeing an increasing trend in bookings for the December holiday season from local travellers, and a sizeable number of foreign tourists.
“Some are coming for the tranquil attractions in Fort portal, waterfalls in Jinja, while others are coming to enjoy a safari in Tanzania and beaches in Kenya. The numbers are picking up,” Kawere said.
Upon reopening tourism activities, Rwanda significantly slashed prices of gorilla permits from $1,500 for all tourists to $200 for Rwandan nationals and East African residents, and $500 for international visitors, effective June 17, to the end of the year.
As restrictions eased and airports opened in August and October allowing airlines to operate, tourism started to pick up, albeit still sluggishly.
The regional tourism players said the biggest impediments to travel and tourism at the moment are the unfriendly Covid-19 testing and travel protocols in place within the region, which are not harmonised.
“The travel protocols in place are very cumbersome. For instance, before coming to Kigali I was tested, then upon reaching the hotel in Kigali I was tested again and put in quarantine for 24 hours, despite having a negative status certificate,” said Susan Ongalo, the CEO of Kenya Tourism Federation, at the tourism conference in Kigali.
“And I will be tested again when going back to Kenya. All these tests cost $200. Three tests are too many. We need a test that is valid for at least 14 days."
The East African Tourism Platform is now engaging regional governments to ease the protocols and harmonise them for ease of travel.