Tourism in Rwanda: genocide memorials as well as gorillas

Rwanda, which has staged a remarkable recovery in the years since the 1994 genocide, has opened visitors' eyes to its past by putting its genocide memorials on the tourist circuit, alongside its iconic mountain gorillas.

The aim, tour operators and government officials say, is to enable tourists to understand the country's recent history and to appreciate the scale of the progress achieved.

In the garden of the main genocide memorial in Kigali's Gisozi district, Anne Porbadnigk, a 30-year-old from Berlin, stops in front of every commemorative plaque, listening carefully to her audio-guide.

"It's actually our first day here. We arrived four hours ago," she told AFP.

Both Porbadnigk and the friend she is with say in order to comprehend modern Rwanda, they need to understand "not only what happened but also how the people deal with history and... how they find peace".

"Being German, we also have a very heavy history," Porbadnigk said.

"When I was a child a question troubled me for years: How I can live in a country where this happened?", she said, referring to the Holocaust.

In the past 10 years, Rwanda's tourism sector has grown exponentially. The number of visitors, which stood at 27,000 in 2004, rose to 1.08 million in 2012. Receipts generated shot up from $15 million to $282 million (11 million - 213 million euros).

Rwanda's attractions are many: endless vistas of hills shrouded in mist, a swathe of virgin rainforest, dazzling lakes and one of the world's cleanest and safest capital cities.

If the main attraction, which draws tourists from all round the world, is the mountain gorillas in the bamboo thickets of the Virunga volcanoes, the memorial sites now receive tens of thousands of visitors every year.

Visitors flock to them, often out of a desire to understand, but sometimes simply because the visit is included in their itinerary.

"The attraction for us was more the nature here and we were very interested in seeing the gorillas," explained Jackie Brown, a police inspector from a small Canadian town near Toronto.

The memorial was part of a recommended tour but "we wanted to go anyway", she explained, smiling, as she sat on the terrace of a coffee shop with her husband, her daughter and their guide.

Brown's interest in the genocide started after she met Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the United Nations mission in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, at a conference last year.

-- The tragedy and the rebuilding --

The memorials themselves have been changed in the two decades since the genocide to place greater emphasis on pedagogical exhibits explaining Rwandan history through text, photos and multimedia, although some bones still remain on display.

A painful section is the exhibit that fills a room in Gisozi and consists of photographs of children massacred, accompanied by the briefest of biographies.

"Francine Murengezi Ingabire," reads one plaque. "Age: 12. Favourite sport: Swimming. Favourite drink: Milk and fanta tropical... Cause of death: Hacked by machete."

David Brown, spokesman for Aegis Trust, the organisation that manages the Gisozi memorial, says the tourists who visit are predominantly North American or European and usually come as part of an organised tour.

These can include study tours but also include large numbers of people on safari-type holidays.

"There's a combination of it being a tour stop and people being genuinely interested to learn about Rwanda's history," he told AFP.

"There is no particular strategy of promoting the memorial sites," said Rica Rwigamba, who is in charge of tourism at the Rwanda Development Board. "But we think it's important for people to understand our country," she added.

Tusafiri Africa Travels, which has outlets in Kenya and the US, proposes a six-day tour called Rwanda History Will Tell! that includes visits to two memorials outside Kigali as a prelude to tracking gorillas and golden monkeys.

Its monochrome advert shows a child in rags standing in front of a field of crude wooden crosses commemorating the Rwandans who were killed after being abandoned by UN Blue Helmets at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) training school.

"As a company -- and most companies work the same way -- we include genocide memorials in our activities mainly because we believe that it puts Rwanda into perspective," said Manzi Kayihura, the managing director of Thousand Hills Expeditions, who also chairs the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association.

"In 10 years only two couples have opted not to go to the genocide memorial," he told AFP.

"I think the story is about the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide and the rebuilding, the rebirth of a nation so it puts everything into context and they appreciate how far Rwanda has come in such a short time," he went on.

Rwanda, whose economy was completely destroyed after the genocide, has had annual GDP (gross domestic product) growth averaging 8.2 percent for the past five years.

For the moment, what visitors still want most is a glimpse of Rwanda's famous apes. "Gorillas remain the main attraction and we build a circuit around them to increase the length of time tourists spend here," Kayihura said.