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Rwanda Is Building a Low-Footprint, Luxury Tourism Industry From Scratch—and Succeeding

The biggest winners may be the resident mountain gorillas.

Singita Kwitonda

“The president is coming!” The excited whispers ripple around the sumptuous new Singita Kwitonda Lodge on the Rwandan side of the verdant, haze-shrouded Virunga volcanoes, then become increasingly urgent: “He’s outside!” “He’s here now!” Like the hundred or so other international guests who made the journey to this hauntingly beautiful spot for the lodge’s opening ceremony, I am intrigued to be meeting Paul Kagame, commander of the rebel force credited with ending the genocide in this central-African country in 1994, who, more controversially, has been head of state since 2000. But our curiosity dims in comparison to that of the many Rwandans present, who regard Kagame with adulation. The local staff in particular are openly starstruck when the tall, rake-thin leader appears at the door in a casual khaki shirt and begins to work the crowd, shaking hands and waving to fans as if he were Mick Jagger on tour. When the word goes around that the president has agreed to pose for a group photo with lodge employees on the front grounds, the waiters drop whatever they’re doing and break into a run.

As Kagame gives a brief speech about Rwanda’s embrace of high-end tourism—“The Singita is even higher end than the high-end I was speaking about!” he jokes of the $25 million lodge—the sun emerges from behind heavy rain clouds, giving the three jagged extinct volcanoes an otherworldly air, like a CGI-enhanced scene from Black Panther. The rugged Virunga Massif is, of course, home to the world’s thousand or so endangered mountain gorillas, 340 of which live on the Rwandan side. (The others are over the border in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) I will soon be trekking there myself, to experience firsthand what has become one of the world’s most exclusive and sought-after wildlife encounters. Now, as flutes of Champagne are passed around with plates of African delicacies and imported cheeses, we learn that Kagame has vanished as suddenly as he arrived. “The president has left the building!” a diplomat intones, sotto voce.

The presence of the charismatic Kagame at the Singita’s unveiling is a sign of how seriously Rwanda takes its fledgling tourism industry. It is a major national event, and an emblem of the country’s astonishing transformation, which is regularly referred to in the international media as the “Rwandan miracle.” In just 25 years, the nation has recovered from harrowing genocidal violence that cost the lives of more than 800,000 people to become an economic model for Africa, with an average growth rate of more than 7.5 percent a year since 2000; today, the country is best known for its safety and natural beauty and the friendliness of its people. The tragic recent history has also meant that Rwanda entered the eco-tourism industry late, allowing it to learn from other African countries’ mistakes. “I can’t say it’s an advantage,” says Belise Kariza, chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board, with a wry laugh. “But the reconciliation process has given us a model. The Rwandan people are so resilient. It’s proof that if you come together with a unified vision, you can achieve anything.”

A mountain gorilla from the Virunga Massif

A mountain gorilla from the Virunga Massif. 

Inspired by the likes of Bhutan and Botswana, the government has chosen to promote exclusive, low-footprint travel that will protect the environment and benefit local communities. The mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park are a key part of the strategy: Only 80 trekking permits are issued daily to meet them, and in 2017 the cost for each permit was doubled to $1,500. In a hugely successful revenue-sharing scheme, 10 percent of all tourism revenue from national parks is pumped back into surrounding villages by building schools and hospitals and improving sanitation. The government also plans to reinvest in the park by buying more land, which will increase the gorillas’ habitat and thus their numbers. One guide told me there’s even a fund to compensate farmers whose produce is eaten by golden monkeys, another primate group in the park that has the habit of venturing beyond its borders. Such policies have increased support among villagers for the long-term benefits of saving wildlife rather than the lucrative temptations of poaching.

They have also led to a mini-boom in luxurious, eco-friendly properties in the country’s wildlife parks: One&Only’s year-old Nyungwe House will be joined this month by Gorilla’s Nest, a second property; Wilderness Safaris opened Bisate Lodge in 2017 and Magashi Camp last December, and rumor holds that Four Seasons is exploring sites. “Rwanda has really put sustainability at the center of a very thoughtful tourism strategy,” says Philippe Zuber, chief operating officer at Kerzner, the owner of One&Only, explaining why the brand chose the country for its latest ventures in Africa. “It was in alignment with our own global vision of combining uber-luxury with amazing natural destinations.” Adding to investor confidence is the government’s unequivocal support. “The president himself facilitated the projects’ approval and was personally involved,” Zuber says. Deborah Calmeyer, CEO and founder of Roar Africa, a high-end operator in New York, has a similar take. “Who knows which direction a country in Africa will go in?” she says. “But Rwanda has made it incredibly easy to invest, limiting red tape and making construction of the new lodges headache-free.”

The deck and pool at the Singita Kwitonda

The deck and pool at the Singita Kwitonda. 

The Singita Kwitonda, named after a friendly silverback gorilla who lived in the park, is the most ambitious of the new wave. Two young architects at the reception, Italian-born Francesco Stassi and Croatian Secil Taskoparan (both based in the capital, Kigali), reminisce about the difficulties of constructing in this wild and isolated setting, which only two years ago was a swamp best explored by helicopter. “We had to hike for an hour from the road, and we’d often fall up to our chests in water,” Stassi says with a laugh. Ironically, creating a lodge 70 miles northwest of Kigali with almost zero waste to landfill required pharaonic efforts: After hiring some 500 construction workers, artisans and gardeners from nearby villages, builders used more than 800,000 locally made bricks and 24,600 square feet of volcanic stone, while the enormous panes of glass for the floor-to-ceiling windows were airlifted in from South Africa in a chartered cargo plane. The eight expansive suites, each with its own Jacuzzi, fireplaces and massage table, were erected on plinths to preserve the landscape. And more than 250,000 trees and seedlings have been planted on the lodge’s 178 acres, creating a lush buffer with the park. “It’s an eco-tourism masterpiece,” boasts Luke Bailes, Singita’s towering, sandy-haired founder and executive chairman.

The project would be inspiring in any part of the world, but the lodge’s proximity to the celebrated gorillas takes it to a higher level. In fact, the primate trek has become such a near-mythic goal for nature-lovers—on a par with yachting in the Galápagos or diving with whale sharks on the Great Barrier Reef—that I have to wonder if it could possibly live up to the hype. Luckily, I find, the expedition is far from over-controlled. The trek remains a quirky, intimate adventure, with a cheerful Rwandan blend of 21st-century efficiency and old-school African improvisation. At around seven a.m., I join the 79 other permit-holders at the park headquarters, which is a mile or so from a Kong-size wooden gorilla statue where annual naming rituals are held for newborn gorillas. The open-air HQ is a hubbub of Land Rovers, drivers from nearby villages and wide-eyed travelers lining up for local coffee, which is brewed with a meticulousness that would impress any Brooklyn barista. “You’re looking at the biggest economic engine in Rwanda,” marvels an American financier of the busy pre-trek scene. “Think about it: 80 tourists a day, $1,500 a pop, 365 days a year, without fail.” He does the quick math. “Let’s call it $44 million a year, give or take.”

Breakfast at Singita Kwitonda

Breakfast at the lodge. 

Soon we are divided into groups of eight, based on our hiking ability, and I join a French couple and a Colombian family to meet our guide, Olivier Mutuyimana. “We are very lucky today!” he beams. We have been chosen to meet one of the largest gorilla families on the entire massif, the Igishas. There are 33 primates in the extended clan, ranging in age from silverbacks in their mid-30s and 40s to a baby just one week old. “But the mother is jealous!” he warns. We might not get a chance to see her.

Mutuyimana goes on to explain the basic etiquette of meeting wild primates face-to-face: We should keep a distance of at least 20 feet at all times, as much to keep human germs from the family as for our personal safety. Gorillas are rarely interested in harming Homo sapiens, so long as they don’t feel threatened. “Don’t worry,” he says with a chuckle, surmising that some of us may have watched too many YouTube videos of gorillas taking unexpected swipes at visitors. “They are vegetarians.” In fact, the gorillas have up to 200 types of plant to eat on the volcanoes, he adds, with mushrooms for protein; sometimes they mix the different plant varieties to make what the guides call “gorilla salad.”

It’s an hour-long drive to the trailhead through Rwanda’s dreamy farmland, where scarlet volcanic soil and hills veiled in mist offer some of the most stunning scenery in Africa. The roads become increasingly rugged as we approach our goal, the extinct volcano Mount Karisimbi, until we grind to a halt by a row of thatch huts, where porters in khaki are offering their services for $10. Many are former poachers whose energies are now diverted to the trekking industry. My backpack contains little more than a sandwich and a water bottle, but I happily sign on Étienne, content that my 10-spot will make a modest direct contribution to the Rwandan cause.

A Singita Kwitonda suite

A Singita Kwitonda suite. 

The muddy trail rises through potato fields exploding with white and lavender blossoms, then into the dense rain forest. Thanks to the altitude, around 8,500 feet, the air is thin but the jungle benign: There are no Land That Time Forgot snakes or spiders to worry about, only five types of stinging nettles. (Luckily, Singita gave me ankle gaiters: In fact, like a high-end ski lodge in Aspen, it provides all gear, including state-of-the-art hiking trousers, rain jackets, backpacks, water bottles and walking sticks.) After about an hour, we run into half a dozen camouflaged men with machetes, several of them cradling automatic rifles—trackers who sleep overnight in the park to monitor the gorillas’ movements. The family is near, they tell us, so Mutuyimana briefs us on gorilla vocabulary. There are 16 “oral prompts,” he explains, but the most important is a series of low grunts that show you mean no harm. If a gorilla makes aggressive-looking moves toward us, he adds casually, we should just drop to our knees and bow our heads in submission. All will be well. And we shouldn’t worry about silverbacks, who can grow to 480 pounds and 6 feet tall: “Chest beating is a form of communication. It can mean they are angry or happy.”

As the trail grows steeper, rivers of sweat begin to pour from us, until the trackers start muttering excitedly in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language. Before I know what is happening, the vines part and I’m in a grassy clearing with a dozen gorillas. They just had their breakfast and are about to have a morning siesta, lying idly in the sun, digesting and yawning. It doesn’t matter how many times others have described the experience: The moment I realize I am feet away from the hulking creatures, which share 98 percent of our DNA, all I can do is stare in open-mouthed wonder. It’s easy to see why Dian Fossey, the American researcher who championed the gorillas in the late 1970s and 1980s, gave them fond names like Uncle Bert, Geezer, Coco and Pucker Puss.

A trek to see Rwanda's golden monkeys

A trek to see the area’s golden monkeys. 

For an hour, we watch domestic scenes unfold like a primate sitcom. A romantic young couple grooms one another affectionately, while two kids, more active than the others, gambol in a bamboo grove, then begin swinging between branches like Cirque du Soleil stars. We soon spot the mother nursing her newborn baby, the very picture of Madonna and child. As we edge around the clearing taking photos (without flash, we have been warned), none of the group pays us the slightest attention. They have become habituated to the human visits every morning and regard us almost as part of the backdrop.

But then the sleepy mood changes when two teenage male gorillas begin to show off in front of a female. They push one another provocatively for a while, then leap into a brawl, teeth bared, swinging at one another furiously. Suddenly, a roar echoes around the clearing: The silverback, who has been sitting above the fray, lumbers forward and stops the contest with a swipe of his anvil-size fist.

Touring the community in Rwanda

Touring the community. 

The teenage pair look like they will slink off sheepishly, but without warning, one breaks into a run—and I realize I am directly in his path. For a second, I am paralyzed—any thought of dropping to my knees is completely forgotten—until Mutuyimana hisses: “Get out of the way!” I step aside and the gorilla speeds straight past, ignoring me entirely. “We are very lucky!” Mutuyimana gloats once the excitement has passed. “We have seen a gorilla fight!” With my heart rate still up around 180, he motions for us to leave. Our hour is up.

As we drive back to the lodge, everyone is in a euphoric delirium. The gorillas had been so recognizable, their range of emotions so close to human and their gentleness so humbling: Any one of the adults could easily have torn an arm off or crushed our rib cages, but they indulged our presence with a lordly magnanimity. It’s difficult to imagine that the first Western explorer to encounter the creatures, a German named Captain Robert von Beringe, who passed by these isolated volcanoes in 1902, promptly shot a pair to take home as scientific specimens. It’s even more disturbing to learn that poaching continues to be a threat, despite its senselessness: Gorillas are still in danger of being killed so their hands, feet and heads can be sold as trophies and their meat as highly priced food, and infants are at risk of being captured alive, even though no mountain gorilla has been known to survive in captivity.

Beads in the local market in Rwanda

Beads in the local market. 

I can only hope that the “Rwandan miracle” will continue: The future of the gorillas is tied to the country’s recovery from the bloodcurdling 1994 genocide, whose memory still hovers. That night, I go with my driver (who prefers not to be named) for beer and ubugari, a porridge-like cassava paste, in the town of Musanze. He opens up about those unimaginable days, when he lost his father, two of his four sisters and two of his three brothers, Tutsis who were butchered by a Hutu gang led by his former best friend. He shares the gruesome details matter-of-factly, but he remains optimistic about the process of reconciliation. “It’s good to go up in the mountains, to hear the calls of the birds, to see people smiling,” he tells me. “It helps me to recover from those things.”

There are other encouraging signs. In Kigali, I ask a guide, Bosco Kayatina, whether he is a Tutsi or a Hutu. He just finished telling me how he had volunteered as a 13-year-old to help clean up the corpses clogging the streets and river. He shakes his head angrily at the question. “I am Rwandan,” he insists. “We are all Rwandans now.”

Dian Fossey would have understood: “When you realize the value of all life,” she famously wrote, “you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

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