Yesterday the Rwanda Development Board announced new tariffs for gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park. They doubled the price and don’t offer discounts to residents anymore. Actually, this is a fixed price for everyone, including Rwandans! Smart move, or have RDB shot themselves in the foot?
As of 7th May 2017, gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda costs… $1,500 per person!!! Before, it was $750 all year round, and $375 for residents, which was already pretty steep. Rwandan nationals paid only Rwf30,000 (ca. $36). The change was announced yesterday and the new prices apply with immediate effect. There were some rumours about the planned increase but when we were booking our permits a few weeks ago, the staff at the RDB office dismissed them as laughable. Well, either they really didn’t know what was coming, or were pretty good actors! There was no forewarning of the change, no indication whatsoever that it was coming. On the Facebook group for expats in Rwanda, a big discussion has exploded. One member said she’d gone to the RDB office on Friday to enquire about the permits. They told her to collect the money and come back on Sunday to pay (not on Saturday!), so when she went in yesterday morning, she had a big surprise waiting for her! Amazingly, the staff actually thought she’d still purchase the permits at the new price! She obviously didn’t, and is now planning a trip to Uganda instead, where the permit costs $600 (and $450 in low season)…
The RDB says that the change will benefit the local communities who will be getting 10% of the revenue from gorilla trekking, instead of 5% as it was until now. This money is spent on building schools and hospitals, and on many other initiatives, like providing access to clean water for people living near the Volcanoes National Park. Also, even more money will be spent on conservation. But it’s not just the support for local communities and the environment that lies at the heart of this price increase. Rwanda has ambitions to become a luxury destination in Africa. New, very fancy lodges are being built near the Park. There are plans to renovate the visitors centre and create all sorts of modern facilities and learning spaces. Another aspect of “luxury” is high-value, low-volume tourism, i.e. not too many people visiting the gorillas because of high prices, but those who can afford it will be paying enough money to sustain the conservation projects. There is a special package on offer now: for $15,000 you can have the whole gorilla family just to yourself. The exorbitant prices are supposed to create an air of exclusivity and attract only the select few who have lots of money going spare. It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it. It applies mainly to gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park as this is the main reason why people come to Rwanda, and it’s one of the biggest sources of income for the whole country. But I suppose soon Akagera National Park and Nyungwe forest will join the club (access to them is already relatively expensive), plus a new park has recently been created and a luxury lodge is being built there as well.
Such a drastic change in fees may affect smaller hotels and local businesses in the Volcanoes area as they will probably see fewer tourists. And those visitors who will not be put off by the prices, will choose to stay at the high-end lodges rather than cheap hotels. However, it’s too early to judge or criticise the move by the RDB but I do hope there is some sound reasoning behind it! The annoying thing is that they haven’t issued a more detailed statement explaining how they arrived at this decision. Still, they’ve done this before – in 2012, when the price of permits was also doubled with no real explanation. That didn’t discourage tourists from coming though. However, I guess many resident foreigners were taking advantage of the 50% discount, which now no longer applies. And the fact that Rwandan citizens aren’t eligible for any discounts either seems a bit ridiculous. Not that many locals were going gorilla trekking but this change certainly won’t encourage them to do that.
Rumour has it that Uganda is now looking at raising their prices too. I suppose they won’t exactly match Rwanda’s rates but if people are willing to pay $1500, then they might as well pay $1000 in Uganda. It will be interesting to see how this affects tourism in Rwanda, and how the neighbours will respond.