Why Rwanda desperately needs tourists, and how to get there

Sarah Marshall
·3-min read
The country is known for its mountain gorillas - Getty
The country is known for its mountain gorillas - Getty

In a country where residents obediently participate in a monthly national litter clean-up, it’s hardly surprising the pandemic has been kept under control in Rwanda. What’s more astonishing is the amount of time it’s taken the UK government to grant the efficient, carefully managed East African nation an air corridor. That finally came to fruition last night with the announcement that from 4am on November 21, British travellers will no longer have to quarantine on their return.

When I visited Rwanda a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the safety checks and protocols in place: a dual testing system, with one negative PCR test required 120 hours before arriving and another taken when passengers land, has allowed borders to safely reopen to international tourism. Mr Shapps, take note.

Swiftly transported to my hotel, the five-star Kigali Serena, I had my second test done on site. Costing US$60, it was a third of the price charged for tests in the UK and far less painful – a simple swab in the cheeks rather than having a stick thrust up your nose.

After self-isolating until my results arrived (about eight hours; although it’s recommended to set aside 24), I set off to Volcanoes National Park, passing women in batik wraps balancing baskets on their heads and men wobbling uphill on bicycles with bulging sacks of potatoes or, daringly, wardrobes strapped to their backs. City or countryside, they all had one thing in common: everyone was wearing masks – obeying a law in place since April.

Moto-taxi drivers carried bottles of sanitiser to clean helmets in between rides, demanding passengers always brought their own headscarves, and wash stations were positioned outside every market and shop.

Sorting coffee bean cherries in Kigali - Getty
Sorting coffee bean cherries in Kigali - Getty

Strict regulations such as these have helped the country flush out coronavirus. As of November 19, there have been a total of 5,543 cases and 46 deaths to date, according to the Rwanda Biomedical Centre. The population might be a sixth of ours, but we’ve had 1,200 times more fatalities.

The news travel restrictions have eased will come as relief to those working in tourism. On my gorilla trek, where masks are now mandatory and a 10-metre distance rule has been put in place, only 12 of a potential 72 permits had been sold. In 2019, Rwanda recorded the highest tourism revenue growth – up 17% year-on-year to US$498 million – but it’s unlikely they’ll get even close to that this year.

Communities depending on tourism have also suffered. Women I met at a basket weaving co-operative in Musanze had been forced to abandon their craftwork and return to tilling fields, earning less than US$1 a day.

Planning a holiday should be relatively straightforward. Many of the country’s high-end hotels, such as One & Only Gorilla’s Nest, are currently open, and RwandAir is operating flights from Heathrow to Kigali, with a brief touchdown in Brussels. 

Although Belgium doesn’t currently have an air corridor, passengers don’t ever leave the plane so should technically still be able to avoid quarantine. The other option would be a more convoluted route via Dubai, involving flights with two separate carriers.

But the journey is worth the effort to visit a place that feels much safer and more stable than home right now.

Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk01242 386461) offers a 12-night Classic Rwanda trip from £11,750 based on two people sharing. Includes gorilla permits, flights, transfers and accommodation on a full board basis when on safari. Based on low-season travel dates.