Welcome to Rwanda — Now, Please Bend Over

I think I’m done trying to be friends with Rwanda. We’re clearly not meant for each other — every time I ask her out, she kicks me in the balls and laughs at me as a I collapse in a heap, then she steals my wallet and runs off to get high with the few friends she’s got left. I’m just too old for that kind of shit. Fresh from the “they write angry letters” department, here’s one I shot off to the head of tourism & conservation (who also happens to own the house we’re renting) yesterday after having my plans for the weekend thoroughly shredded. It’s long and it’s grumpy, so if you’re mostly here for the pictures of animals killing each other and the occasional bike porn, then feel free to ignore this one.

Dear Rica,

A few weeks ago, a friend suggested that a group of us climb Karisimbi. It sounded like a great idea – it was one of the things I had really wanted to do during my six months in Rwanda, and since my family can’t visit the gorillas (at 10 and 13, our kids aren’t allowed to come), it would be a chance to at least get up to Volcanoes National Park.

The outrageous $400 price tag was entirely out of my budget range, so I was glad to learn that as a resident of Rwanda I would be eligible to do the hike for “only” $200. Still expensive for a hike, but hopefully worth it. So, I waited until my residency permit was at long last issued by the Rwandan Government, and this past Monday I headed over to RDB. I showed my visa, paid my $200, and got my permit. Impressive and efficient. Except, five minutes after I had left, I received a call to please come back. Supposedly, there was “a problem” with my permit. Back I went, only to have my freshly issued permit confiscated and be told that I couldn’t get the the lower rate after all.

Because even though I have a residency permit and thus am a legal temporary resident of Rwanda, I apparently am not actually eligible for RDB’s resident rate. My permit runs out at the end of December, which was somehow “too short” for me to climb a volcano in November. It didn’t make sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t make sense to me now. I am not in charge of how the Rwandan government does business. I don’t know why it took the Ministry of Health (as the sponsoring body) and the Directorate of Immigration well over three months to process my application and at long last get around to issuing the residency permit. What I do know is that my family and I arrived in Rwanda on July 21st and that we have resided here ever since. Nowhere on my visa does it say, “this is only a short-term ‘pretend’ residency permit; the RDB isn’t going to acknowledge it.” I know that it has been a huge pain in the neck to be here without residency permits (you were kind enough to help out the last time that status caused us grief in Nyungwe, but the endless hassles of dealing with the nasty manager of the park cast a gloom over our entire experience there). But since Rwanda has so wisely clamped down on bribery, I don’t know how I was supposed to make the processing of my visa go any faster so I could have had a “longer” visa that would somehow have made me more of a resident in the eyes of the staff at the RDB.

Let me be clear: I don’t think this is just a case of me being a particularly difficult customer. I just heard back from one of the people I was supposed to go hiking with this weekend:

I’m sorry for your situation. It’s indeed very frustrating. I was also about to cancel my own hike, because they didn’t want to give me the group (i.e. more than two people) discount, because “all the other 11 people have resident visa, so you are the only one with no resident visa. Therefore, you are not part of the group of 12 [!!], and you have to pay $400 as if you were going alone”. It’s exasperating.

I can’t imagine that “frustrating” and “exasperating” are words you want to see people associate with tourism in Rwanda. But in my short time here, I’ve experienced those emotions twice at the hands of the RDB; my friend quoted above is clearly less than thrilled; and in Nyungwe, colleagues of ours became so appalled by the treatment to which they were subjected by the park staff that they opted to sit out the entire hike – thus, their experience of a day at Nyungwe was to sit disappointedly at the visitor’s center waiting for the rest of us to come back. I think it’s fair to assume that reviews and recommendations to friends and relatives from all of us will be less-than-glowing. You can have all the glossy brochures you want, but if your policies and rules drive people to the point of exhaustion and word-of-mouth has it that Rwandan tourism is a pain in the neck, then it’s all for nothing.

I do appreciate there may well be a practical cause for all of this grief: perhaps RDB sets budget goals to be met, and your team may simply feel compelled to squeeze every last dollar out of every last muzungu that shows up, no matter the consequences to the brand. If that’s the case, then I do feel sorry for you all; it’s never fun to have someone breathing down your neck forcing you to make bad decisions. Because if the goal is helping people enjoy Rwanda so they’ll come back and bring their friends, then it’s not working. And if the goal is making money for the RDB, then it’s definitely not working, either. Because I’m not going to Karisimbi this weekend. This was the only chance I had, so I’m not going to Karisimbi at all. Which means that RDB won’t be making $400 off me. You won’t even make $200 off me. You’re making nothing – not a single cent. What’s more, I’m not going to spend a night or two at a hotel in Musanze, I’m not going to have dinner there, or hire a porter or rent a tent or buy a snack or fill up my car with gas. I’m also not bringing my family of three, who were planning to do the Dianne Fossey hike while I climbed Karisimbi. All told, RDB’s eagerness to make an extra $200 off me through pointless bureaucratic penny-pinching cost the Government of Rwanda at least $600 in direct revenue loss, and the country as a whole lost an additional couple of hundred dollars’ worth of business. Do the math: the obsession with obscure regulations simply isn’t paying off.

Quite apart from the unprofessional and disappointing stance of refusing to recognize legitimate resident status on the basis of some random technicality, I think RDB’s three-tier Visitor/Resident/Rwandan pricing model is flawed. Visitors come in all shapes and sizes – and with all sorts of budgets. And yet, much in the way that many foreigners ignorantly and unfairly bunch together the entire continent as “Africa” in spite of the huge difference between, say, Rwanda and the D. R. Congo, you at the RDB seem to assume that “visitors” are all the same. Sure, you have your wealthy retired Americans with plenty of disposable income. (My guess is you’d like to think that they represent all “visitors.” They don’t.) But you also have the young student backpacking around the world, you have the eco-tourist on a budget looking for a more authentic experience off the beaten path. Sure, you’ve got visitors from Europe and the United States, with average household incomes that could perhaps justify your hefty price tags, but you’ve also got visitors from countries with significantly lower average incomes, who end up feeling over-charged and disappointed because your pricing model simply assumes that they’re as rich as the Americans you’d like them to be.

Then there are the Rwandan temporary residents. Again, you’ve got your diplomats and your technical consultants on one end, and your missionaries, medical volunteers, and students on the other. I think you would agree that those groups will have radically differing budgets. The cost of living in Rwanda is about the same as in the United States, but for temporary residents like us, it’s even higher, since we’ve had to spend a lot of money on household goods and other pricey imports. We do not have much in the way of disposable income once we’ve paid rent, food, transportation and school fees. But on your chart, we’re still considered “rich visitors, who we’ll give a few dollars’ discount as a reward for having gone the extra mile and stayed in Rwanda longer.”

I don’t know what your market research shows, but I doubt the volume and revenue from tourism in Rwanda can grow much beyond its current level if you insist on a pricing model that only really works for a tiny niche of incredibly wealthy international travelers and alienates everybody else. That may work for something as scarce as the gorilla permits, but how are you going to keep the big parks full if few can afford to go? And what, I wonder, are you going to do if and when your rich elite grows tired of Rwanda and decides to go somewhere else?

As far as I’m concerned, this was the last attempt. I’m done trying to enjoy what Rwanda supposedly has to offer in the way of tourist attractions. It’s just not worth the frustration or expense. If I want to go climb a mountain, I can do so back home in the national parks in Vermont, where it costs exactly zero dollars, no matter what your residency status is. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as Karisimbi would have been, but it sure will be a hell of a lot less frustrating and exasperating.

I wish you the best of luck promoting tourism in Rwanda – you have a lot to be proud of, but given what I’ve experienced in my dealings with the RDB, I believe the business model needs some work before it will work best for Rwanda.