The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) sent shockwaves through the African eco-tourism industry earlier this month when it announced – seemingly without consulting the tourism trade – a doubling in the cost of its gorilla-trekking permits, from US$750 to $1500.

The increase is effective immediately (as of 6 May), but does not apply to visitors who had booked and paid for permits before the announcement. In addition to the doubling of the permit fee the RDB has also introduced an exclusive category of permit, allowing tourists to ‘reserve’ an entire family of gorillas and an exclusive guide for US$15,000.

“We have raised the price of permits in order to ensure sustainability of conservation initiatives and enhance visitors’ experience,” explained Clare Akamanzi, the Chief Executive Officer at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB). “We also want to make sure that the communities living near the park area receive a bigger share of tourism revenues to fund development projects and empower them economically.”

Photo: Jacada Travel

Under the new fee schedule, communities surrounding the park will receive 10 percent (up from five percent) of the permit fee, quadrupling the cash amount received for each permit.

Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains is home to 20 gorilla families habituated for tourism, and gorilla trekking to spend an hour with the primates has long been a drawcard of the small central African nation.

While tourism operators with commercial interests in Rwanda have been understandably wary of publicly criticising the move, regional tourism bodies have spoken out against the dramatic increase.

Photo: Rwanda Tourism Board

While acknowledging the need for funding conservation efforts, the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association said in a statement: “We believe an immediate doubling of gorilla permits will be taken negatively by the markets, will affect our businesses and the whole tourism value chain and we risk losing substantial revenue for the industry and government as a whole.”

Highlighting the fact a number of trekking permits remain unsold in the low season, “we need to ensure permit sales do not decline further,” read the RTTA statement. “International travel agents publish prices a year in advance, and this sudden change will not be well received.”

“We need to strike a balance between conservation and tourism. Conservation depends on tourism revenue to succeed,” argued the East African Tourism Platform. “What are the consequences of this price hike on tourist demand and the entire tourism value chain?”

In a bid to soften the blow to the tourism industry, and highlight other natural attractions in the country, the RDB has dovetailed the price increase with potential for discounted rates.

Travellers that include visits to the national parks of Nyungwe or Akagera for a minimum of three days will receive a discount of 30 percent (US$450) on the permit fee. With the recent completion of the Kigali Convention Centre, the Board is also trying to boost its nascent conferencing industry. Conference guests who book a gorilla trek before or after the event can claim a 15 percent (US$225) discount.

Photo: Rwanda Tourism Board

However, the impact on demand will be closely watched over the course of 2017, and the Uganda Tourist Board has been quick to highlight that its substantially lower permit fees – $600/$450 for peak/low season – will remain fixed for at least the next 12 months.

Uganda Wildlife Authority Executive Director, Andrew Seguya, said the steady increase in populations of Mountain Gorilla “shows that our model for gorilla tourism works and both conservation and locals benefit from tourism. We, therefore, have no reason to change anything or increase fees.”

“It is important that not only a wealthy minority can get the chance to experience these animals in their natural environment,” added Stephen Asiimwe, Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board.

John Segar

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