Gorilla tourism in Rwanda and Uganda
The two East African neighbours, Uganda and Rwanda are one of the 3 countries that share the popular ecosystem of the Virunga Massif or Virunga Mountains together with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The area, which is also known as the Virunga Conservation Area (VCA) is popularly known for protecting some of the world’s rarest endangered species including mountain gorillas, and golden monkeys. These rare primates, together with other species including mammals and birds are protected within several national parks that straddle the borders of the 3 countries. These include Volcanoes national park in Rwanda, Virunga national park in Congo and Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda. The common species found in all the 3 parks are the endangered mountain gorillas with the rest of their population found further north in Bwindi impenetrable national park in southwest Uganda.
Given the exclusive concentration of gorillas in this area, Uganda and Rwanda are now popularly known for gorilla safaris and primates tours among travellers worldwide. Gorilla trekking has gone on to become the leading tourist attraction in both countries and the leading foreign exchange earner in their tourism sector. Gorilla tours fetch millions of dollars in tourism revenue for Rwanda and Uganda each year making a significant contribution to their GDP.
Importance of tourism to Rwanda and Uganda
Tourism sector is a major contributor to the local economic development of both Uganda and Rwanda. In Uganda, tourism is the top foreign exchange earner, generating about US $1.4 million. In the report published by Daily Monitor Uganda on Friday 3rd April, 2020, the past five years tourism has contributed about 7% to Uganda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The tourism sector benefits directly about 500,000 Ugandan employees. The employment generated by tourism value chain is anticipated to grow by about 10% if tourism regains momentum after the pandemic.
Rwanda on the other hand, receives about USD $ 438 million of revenues from her tourism sector. Although coffee is the main foreign exchange earner for Rwandan economy, statistics from Rwanda Tourism Board (RDB) and World Bank (WB) shows that Rwanda tourism sector mainly depends on gorilla tourism thus contributing about 15.1% of the country’s total Growth Domestic Product (GDP) of USD $ 9.14 billion. Tourism in Rwanda employs over 40,000 people.
Besides, gorilla tours, Rwanda has developed world class facilities for Conferences, Meetings and Incentives (MICE), smooth cashless transport system, good tarmac road network from Kigali city linking to other destinations like Volcanoes National Park and a high level of safety and security standards.
What influences tourism in Uganda and Rwanda?
Weather and Climate
Uganda is located along the equator and covers about 241, 038 km2 which is almost 9 times larger than Rwanda. Rwanda is located about 216.84 km south of the equator. Both Rwanda and Uganda enjoy a warm tropical climate with rainy and dry seasons and can be visited anytime of the year. However, the dry season is the best time to visit both countries for a wildlife safari and gorilla tours. The longest dry season is June to September; while the shortest is December to February. However, temperature ranges differ due to altitude and it’s very important to know the required clothing and what to pack for safari.
For instance, central region of Uganda around Lake Victoria basin experience high amounts of rainfall between 1000 to 1500 millimeters per annum and temperature range between 17°C/ 63 °F and 27°C/ 81 °F. In the southwestern parts of Uganda, the mountainous tropical terrain has high humidity and get cold with temperatures going down to 7⁰C in the wet season and reach 20⁰C. Northeastern Uganda known as Karamoja is just the opposite example of southwest. The region is semi-arid and hottest. In Kidepo valley National Park temperature range between 23⁰C to 32⁰C degrees Celsius.
Uganda offers an opportunity to stand at equator monuments for photo-shoots and swim in the waters of Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in Africa. For beach holidays, Uganda’s tropical destinations such as Sesse islands, the Source of River Nile offer a variety of choices for water spot activities like boat cruise, beach vacation and accommodation on the waterfront.
On the other hand, Rwanda does not have much differences in temperatures because the terrain is almost similar. The Northern and southern Provinces which are mountainous with volcanoes and tropical forests, temperature ranges between 6°C at night and 30°C compared to Kigali city with 15°C to 26°C.
Wildlife and national parks
Uganda has 10 national parks and 13 wildlife reserves while Rwanda has only 4. For travelers seeking a diversity of adventure and wildlife safaris, Uganda is better than Rwanda. Because a typical Ugandan itinerary in one day for instance in Queen Elizabeth National Park; one can do chimpanzee trekking in the morning and then enjoy game drive and a boat cruise on Kazinga channel in the afternoon which is not possible in any of Rwandan national parks.
Wildlife viewing is also better in Uganda because the country has five savannah national parks namely; Kidepo Valley National Park, Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Mburo National Park. Some of these have wildlife species that are not found in Rwanda such as cheetahs and ostrich in Kidepo and tree climbing lions in Ishasha wilderness of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s most visited park.
On the other hand, Rwanda has one savannah park; that is Akagera National Park which is home to big five African mammals including black rhinos. Black rhinos and lions were re-introduced in 2005 after their extinction thus the number of rhinos and lions in Akagera National Park is still fewer. The probabilities of seeing all big 5 mammals especially leopard whether on Uganda tour or Rwanda safari will depend on factors like knowledge of a safari guide and choice of itinerary.
Both Uganda and Rwanda provide opportunities to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitats. Choosing your gorilla trekking destination is influenced by cost of the gorilla trekking permit, type of tour such as luxury gorilla tours, medium or budget; other wildlife and cultural activities and the number of days you would like to have on safari.
In Rwanda, you can see gorillas in Volcanoes National Park where 10 gorilla families have been habituated for trekking. In Uganda mountain gorillas are found in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Bwindi is a UNESCO world heritage site and habitat for half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. Bwindi has the largest number of habituated gorillas at least there are 19 gorilla families. The park is divided into four gorilla trekking centers namely; Buhoma (the park headquarters) with 4 gorilla families, Rushaga sector with 7 gorilla families, Ruhija with 4 gorilla families and Nkuringo has 3 gorilla families.
Gorilla trekking offer visitors a chance to see gorillas for 1 hour. However, you can spend up to four hours with semi-habituated gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park through Gorilla Habituation Experience.
A gorilla trek in Volcanoes National Park is moderate due to volcanic terrain while in Bwindi the trek is considered difficult due to dense vegetation. Generally, a gorilla trek can take 1 to 8 hours from the start to search and locate the gorillas.
At $1,500 per person, Rwanda’s gorilla permit is majorly considered to be for luxury travellers while Uganda welcomes all categories of visitors at $700 per person for gorilla trekking.
For the length of a gorilla trip, in Rwanda it’s possible to do 1 day gorilla tour to Volcanoes National Park because the distance from Kigali to the park is just a 2-hour drive. Travellers visiting Uganda for gorilla trekking via Entebbe International Airport may need to spend a minimum of 3 days in the country due to longer distance to Bwindi or Mgahinga national parks (10-hour drive). However, many travellers opt for a shorter gorilla trekking trip across the border in Bwindi via Kigali International Airport in Rwanda since the park is closer to Kigali than Kampala or Entebbe.
Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) in Uganda and Rwanda
The travel and tourism industry generates USD $7 trillion globally according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). MICE market is part of this this fastest growing tourism sector and statistics from the WTTC show that it generates US$ 659 billion to US$ 700 billion of the total international tourism revenues.
In Africa the market for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions is growing. According to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) which represents the global meetings and conferences in 2013 Africa hosted a total of 11, 685 meetings and events. Furthermore statistics released in 2019, Rwanda’s capital Kigali city was ranked second best after South Africa while Kampala Uganda came in sixth position.
Rwanda has positioned itself as a hub for international and regional events better than Uganda. This is because Rwanda has attracted international hotel brands such as Marriott, Radisson Blu, Park Inn, Wilderness Safaris and Golden Tulip in Kigali city; thus becoming a hub for regional and international MICE and business travel market. No wonder Rwanda has hosted high level conferences like World Economic Forum (WEF). According to Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB), Kigali city venues like Kigali Convention Center has five start facilities that can accommodate up to 10000 people.
On the other hand, Uganda recently has attracted international hotel chain brands such as Hilton hotels and Sheraton hotels which has hosted high level business meetings like the Common Wealth Meetings in 2007, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Global Leadership Summit in 2020 etc. This has helped to position Uganda as a destination for leisure and business travel market which boosts the local economy according to Uganda Tourism Board Chief executive officer Lily Ajarova report after representing the country at the Institute of Business Travel Management (IBTM) held in Barcelona, Spain in November 2019.
Accessibility and Getting Around
The major point of entry to Uganda is Entebbe International airport which is located on Entebbe peninsular on Lake Victoria. From there to the capital Kampala takes about 1 hour drive (34 km). However, the drive time can take a little bit longer when traffic peaks at rush hours in the morning and evening.
On the other hand, from Kigali city airport to most of the hotels takes less than 15 minutes’ drive. Though it depends on the location of your accommodation and destination.
When visiting Uganda, most likely your first night is spent in Kampala or Entebbe and the next day travel to the Uganda Wildlife national parks. The distance is longer but there’s a lot to offer along the way. For instance, the equator can only be found along Ugandan routes. A Uganda gorilla tour starting in Kampala takes in a journey of about 512 km to drive across the countryside to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, southwestern. Lake Mburo National Park is the closet park to Kampala which is about 200 km away.
A Rwanda gorilla tour from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park takes about 2-hour drive while the furthest drive time is 218 km to Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwestern Rwanda.