Rwanda last week hosted various events that attracted several international guests from across the world. Early in the week there was, the gorilla naming event Kwita Izina that coincided with Independence Day celebrations. In the same week Rwanda also hosted the pan African youth conference, Women in Parliament Summit, the Northern Corridor Summit and the Liberation Day. Yasir Mohammed Baffo, the director of Somalia Tourism Association was one of the guests who experienced the simultaneous events. The New Times Collins Mwai caught up with him to share his impressions. Excerpts
During your stay in the country, what stood out to you considering the series of events you were part of?
I was invited by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to participate in the naming ceremony, Kwita Izina. It was an eye opener in the way Rwanda is keen on tourism and conservation efforts. As much as there may not be a lot of wildlife, they have managed to make the most of what they have.
Another highlight is the transparency of the tourism sector in declaring the proceeds and investments. Through that it builds support from the community since they are given opportunity to witness firsthand the benefits of conservation.
I also visited several tourism sites across the country and can confidently say that Rwanda is ready to welcome the world in terms of tourism.
The hospitality sector is also well equipped and gives clients value for money.
The government too seems to be committed to developing the sector.
Did you have any perceptions of the country in mind sparked by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and what difference did you find if any?
The perception most people have about Rwanda is similar to what they have about my country, Somalia. It is one of civil war and conflict. But they will never know how far they are from the truth until they come here.
The country has made significant progress in the last two decades and has achieved a lot in terms of reconciliation, development and progress.
I urge all people with such perception about Rwanda to come and experience for themselves. They should get to see how integrated the society is, and how the people have stood together to develop their nation.
You were here when multiple events were going on simultaneously. Rwanda is currently aiming at becoming a regional hub for meetings and conferences. Do you think this is realistic?
I was here during a busy week, there were numerous conferences with international audiences. It was impressive to see Rwanda handling multiple conferences and exhibiting high competence in aspects such as logistics, accommodation and airport services among others.
This is a good indicator that the country has capacity for the MICE initiative where they plan to be a regional hub for conferences and meetings.
But as they go further, there is probably need to increase the capacity of hotels, as well as Airport arrivals since the number of visitors every year is projected to grow.
From your experiences, what should be done to boost the tourism industry?
In my opinion Rwanda could be a small country but that doesn’t mean limited tourism potential. Rwanda seems to have given attention to quality of tourism rather than quantity.
Quality of hospitality, quality in terms of services provision and security. Through that, visitors keep coming back and also go around speaking of the good quality services they have received. That seems to have been the greatest contributor to the growth of the sector.
Rwanda has also tried to make the most from the available resources. There may not be an ocean or more wildlife like other countries in the region but the insistence of quality is making them the preferred option.
There is need to promote Rwanda as a brand and open it up to as many people as possible. The move to have African passport holders receive visas on arrival is a positive one because it has eased movement of people on the continent.
It is a move that can be borrowed by other countries on the continent.
What’s your take on the move to integrate tourism promotion through the single tourist visa initiative?
Integration of tourism promotion amongst Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda is one of the best things not only for the public tourism players but also for players in the private sector.
It will ease marketing the region’s touristic sites as visitors feel they have access to more sites and places that they would if they visited only one country. That translates to more income for players in the region.
Not much is said about Somalia in terms of tourism and business opportunities. Are there any to speak of?
In terms of tourism activities, Somalia’s eco-tourism is still intact despite the prolonged civil war. We have the longest coastline on the continent as well as rivers, mountains, white sandy beaches among others.
However most of these are still virgin. For the time being, there is not much tourism activities as we first have to sort out our security issues and have political stability. Soon after the security issue is sorted, we will be ready to open up our doors.
Currently we are focused on building capacity amongst locals on the importance and impact of tourism in an economy and hopefully it will lead towards contributing to peace and stability.
20 years ago, Rwanda and Somalia were devastated by conflict but Rwanda has since recovered. What lessons do you think Somalia can pick from Rwanda’s experience?
Rwanda and Somalia share that in common, negative perceptions from a large section of the world that have inhibited our potential to open up to the world. In the case of Somalia, there is a hospitality sector, and well equipped state-of-the-art hotels as well as operational Airlines.
But I think it is important that Somalia learns from Rwanda, there are many lessons we could take like political stability, peace, and security. The Somali government is aware of where Rwanda is right now after only two decades following the Genocide.
It is a clear indicator that we can also change our story and people’s perception about us.
Are you seeing any hope for peace and stability in Somalia?
There is a big chance for peace in Somalia. We are currently experiencing the best time since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, and we are optimistic the situation will get better. We are headed to a place of stability.
Having visited the memorial site and seen how far Rwanda was and where they are now, it shows that peace and stability is possible.
Any other comment?
The greatest lesson I take with me from Rwanda is that there could be an unstable yesterday and a peaceful tomorrow. All that is needed is commitment to peace, integration, reconciliation and unity as a nation.
Rwanda has put a lot of efforts in development and the impacts are clearly visible with the quality of life of the citizens. African countries at war have a lot to learn from Rwanda.