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Giving Tour Guides Tools to Make Rwanda Region's Tourist Hub

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“If there are doctors without borders, why can’t there be tour guides without borders?” “Why can’t Rwanda become the choice entry point for tourists seeking the East Africa Single Tourist Visa, reputed as it is for safety and security? If Rwanda is known as a secure tour destination, why don’t we lure tourists to base here as they explore the region?”

These were some of the recurrent themes at a five-day training workshop for members of the Rwanda Safari Guides Association, an umbrella body for local tour guides.

Sponsored by TradeMark East Africa, and held at the Villa Portofino Hotel in Nyarutarama through the week, the training sought to familiarize local tour guides with East Africa as a single tour destination, and the workings of East Africa Single Tourist Visa.

And thankfully, the session did not stop at the mere posing of these tough questions.

Under regime that came into effect on January 1, 2014, tourists visiting Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya pay for only one, as opposed to three separate tourist visas. It is a multiple-entry document that is valid for 90 days, during which period a tourist can traverse the three countries at no additional cost. The visa costs $100.

However, it is issued free of charge to foreign residents working in any of the three countries, in a bid to promote intra-country tourism alongside the regional package.

While on the part of tourists this translates into reduced costs of travel, to the respective countries it will mean increased tourist inflows. Yet what does it mean to the foot soldiers of the tourism industry –the guides? Does it present new opportunities, new challenges, or both?

And for the case of Rwanda, whose tourism industry is relatively younger in comparison to Kenya’s and Uganda’s, does this spell doom, or gloom for local players?

Whether it is challenges or opportunities that the new visa regime presents, one thing is for sure: that Rwandan tour guides must embrace change.
In light of these concerns, the training also sought to create awareness of basic tour guiding principles, and the competencies for professional tour guiding.

Innocent Kahigana, a training consultant from the Private Sector Federation/Chamber of Tourism tipped participants that “guiding goes beyond descriptions in guide books”.

“Being a tour guide is a very important job. In many cases, the tour guide is a traveler’s first impression of a foreign country. In other cases a guide may be responsible for teaching tourists about the culture and sites of a city or town. In addition tour guides hold the responsibility of teaching tourists about safety,” he explained on the first day of his five-day power point presentation.

He also laid out what he termed “sins of the trade” –things that a tour guide should never do while on the job: Apathy – a general I-don’t-care attitude towards tourists, trying to avoid standard operating procedures, coldness, a condescending attitude, and rule book-ism –the insistence on rules without exception.

“A successful tour must start from within you –from loving what you do. Have prior practice of what you want to provide, and always stop to offer explanations to the group at any point of the tour.”

He challenged the guides to undertake extensive personal research on their field to gain more knowledge, warning that most tourists are usually very knowledgeable and will easily notice an ill-informed guide.

“Don’t become the tourist yet you are a guide. Don’t be a guide who needs to be guided.”

He also talked at length on the subject of how to handle sensitive or provocative questions from tourists. This is after a number of guides narrated different episodes when they did not know how to handle a particular question from a tourist.

“We all have to communicate painful information at some point in our careers. But while it’s important to always tell the truth, we need to think about how we do it.” He called for tact on the part of the tour guide: “Tact allows us to be honest, while respecting a person’s feelings.”

Ange Sebutege, the head of Customer Care and Communications from the Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration gave a presentation on the policy and legal issues involved, challenges they face as Immigration, and also shared some useful contacts of persons that the guides could contact in case of any legal or administrative issues.

“As we all know, Tourism is all about open competition, so we need to create a conducive environment to remain relevant,” he said, adding: ““The work of Immigration is to create a conducive environment for tourism.”

Of the $100 visa fee, the issuing country retains $40 with 10 percent of it for administrative costs. The two other countries share the remaining $60 equally.

One can apply for and acquire their Visa from any diplomatic representation of the respective countries, at their immigration offices, or online.

Sebutege further explained that there are stiff penalties for those who violate the visa deadline by overstaying.

The penalties range from verbal warnings for minor violations, to fines of as much as Rwf500,000 for serious offenders.

He explained that implementation of the country’s migration policy goes beyond attracting of tourists. “It also includes a skills attraction program, investment promotion, security, and stability.”

Competitive advantage

So in light of the new visa regime, are local guides ready to showcase Rwanda’s unique tourism potential and comparative advantage over the region? Where does the country’s comparative advantage lie, in the first place?

Are local guides ready to take their guiding exploits and expertise beyond the country’s borders, in light of the relaxed visa regime?

The general consensus is that the first step is knowing and mastering their own turf. There was also consensus that there is “tourism beyond gorillas” in Rwanda.

Leading this school of thought is Leopold Kabendera, the Managing Director of the Villa Portofino Hotel.

“Rwanda is known worldwide for its unique landscape, which can be developed as a tourism package of its own.”

He further advised the tour guides to adopt a “Doctors Without Borders” attitude, and establish themselves as “Tour Guides Without Borders”. “If you can sell Rwanda to tourists, why can’t you sell the region as well?”

He further advised the guides to “not be intimidated by language”, urging them to always keep a journal in whatever language they are comfortable in.

“As Africans, we should learn to tell our own stories. We should not wait to read about ourselves in the international media.”

Anny Batamuliza, the proprietor of New Dawn Associates, a local tour company also underscored the importance of highlighting the country’s unique tourism potential:

“Rwanda and Burundi are the only countries in Africa where the whole country speaks the same language. This means that all Rwandans can communicate with each other easily, and this is a strength.”

On the third day of the workshop, Mr. Kahigana played a video slide that highlighted the common problems faced by tourists in ten selected tour destinations across the globe.


Some of the most recurrent issues raised by tourists were:

Guides who brag a lot about their countries, those that hide all the negative things about their country, lack of clear prices for deals, to lack of understanding on how to keep tourists safe from locals.

Other problems cited included guides who do drugs/drunkenness, making deals with local drivers and hotels, petty theft, clingy guides, and the risk of kidnap. In one African country, tourists complained of overly loud tour guides.

Thankfully, Rwanda did not make it on this list.

According to Kirenga Kamugisha, the chairman of the Rwanda Safari Guides’ Association, which organized the training, “in tourism a guide is the end service provider and coordinator of all activities – from airport to airport. In the end, it is the guide who portrays the true image of Rwanda.”

“Tourists trust in guides because they believe that they are carefully selected, trained and professional people.

They believe in what we say as truth. To shape this kind of person can only happen through trainings. Training enhances one’s personality and experience into professionalism.”

He further adds that the association has so far assessed guides to the level of bronze –which is the first level to attain in guiding. Next, it will asses them to the level of silver, then gold. “Our vision is that all guides have to be professional, and to be specialized in a particular field.”

He says that as an association, the primary task of RWASAGA is “to produce professional guides in collaboration with stakeholders, which will benefit both guests to Rwanda, and the country at large.” He adds that “We are trying to avoid a situation whereby the regional players take advantage of our ignorance of the area.”

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