How will tourism in LMICs change post-COVID?

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Tourists on the way to visit the Kwitonda family, one of the largest mountain gorilla families in Rwanda. Photo by: Visit Rwanda / CC BY-ND

CANBERRA — In January, the United Nations World Tourism Organization forecast a growth of 3% to 4% in international tourist arrivals worldwide for 2020. But the impact of COVID-19 has seen those numbers slashed as international travel comes to a grinding halt, impacting the tourism sector and tourist-reliant industries.

In Rwanda, tourism is a strategic sector for the government — part of its transformation and modernization of the economy. In 2019, tourism contributed to 10% of the country’s GDP and was responsible for 8% of all employment, according to a recent webinar. Between 2008 and 2019, the sector was growing at an average of 11% each year. Low- and middle-income countries had a small share of the international tourism market, but were growing at a higher rate — 9% growth annually, compared to 4% globally — and were seen as providing new opportunities for economic development.

“What we recorded in March since COVID hit is that 54% of our visitor arrivals has declined,” said Belise Kariza, chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board. This decline and canceled events produced an estimated loss of $42 million for the sector and country.

The challenges for the tourism sector in LMICs — compared to high-income countries — is the lack of financial support available to assist tourism businesses as they wait for the pandemic to ease and tourists to return.

“In the small island developing states, the impact on tourism is particularly challenging,” Zoritsa Urosevic, director of institutional relations and partnerships department at UNWTO, told Devex. “In the Pacific, we are working from various endpoints — from the U.N. system, from bilateral donors and more — to find resources to help the tourism sector in these countries.”

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But despite these challenges, LMICs may have an advantageous position when tourist confidence re-emerges, Urosevic anticipated increasing airfare prices that could influence tourists’ travel choices.

“Space is luxury,” she said. “Taking it from that lens, LMICs really have an advantage. People are becoming more personal and want selective numbers in their vacation. All the ingredients in LMICs are there — populations are not as large and there is more space everywhere.”

Supporting tourism in LMICs

UNWTO is focusing support for LMICs with its COVID-19 response and recovery in a variety of ways. It is monitoring and measuring data, and engaging with a variety of stakeholders — from governments, donors, the private sector, and more — to build a set of tools that can help countries.

It has been engaging in a dialog with international finance institutions to push for packages that are tailored to support tourist jobs and the private sector. And work supporting LMICs includes advocating on the importance of the tourism sector for direct and indirect impact.

“Tourism has a very big value chain, especially the supply chain in food supply and food production, and creates many jobs,” Urosevic said. But to build this knowledge it requires an interaction between different players within governments — health ministries, transport ministries, social affairs, and more, and in partnership with the private sector.

“Never before have tourism ministers in LMICs had credibility in the cabinet at government levels,” Urosevic said. “It’s considered more of a fun activity — people didn’t realise how important it is to economies.”

While Urosevic said the tourist sector is still in a survival phase, integrating resilience — including protocols and processes — is needed as part of the COVID-19 response to place LMICs in a position to attract tourism while keeping safe. And it is also an opportunity for them to re-think who they are marketing to and how.

“With travel, we can build protocols and systems to be as safe as possible, but you still need people to come from source markets,” Urosevic said. “And this is why we are targeting a regional approach to recovery.”

Rwanda: A case study

The tourism sector in Rwanda has seen a rapid response to the economic impact of COVID-19.

“Since the lockdown, we have been working on a resilience and recovery plan,” Kariza said. The plan was developed in partnership with health and finance ministries as well as the private sector and UNWTO, Kariza continued. “We have put out guidelines to the tourism and hospitality industry to ensure the readiness of the sector as soon as tourism and travel activities can commence.”

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Kariza said that a heavy marketing campaign in 2019 saw Rwanda record its highest international visitor total for the year — and $498 million in total revenue. It’s marketing to high-end tourists, in particular, was successful. Its mountain gorilla tracking — which is conducted in small numbers to protect the gorillas and their habitat — is a key attraction.

“Protecting the gorillas has also been one of our key objectives when it comes to conservation, and a lot of things we have done in Rwanda to contribute to the increase in the mountain gorilla population,” Kariza said. Each day tourist numbers are limited. Eight people can visit one group of mountain gorillas for just one hour. Permits to visit the gorillas cost $1,500 as part of a high value, low volume strategy.

Following the COVID-19 emergency in Rwanda, measures were immediately taken to protect the gorillas. All tourist activities in and around protected areas were suspended. People working in protected areas were reduced, and rangers and trackers remaining were tested for COVID-19.

Packaging Rwanda as an exclusive destination is important as part of the industry recovery, but in the meantime, the country is preparing the sector to better manage and respond to health risks as well as support future tourists. Kariza said employees in the hospital industry are being trained in English and digital literacy, and domestic tourism is being promoted.

“We have also invested in digital marketing … and we’re currently using modern technology tools to advance our marketing by creating online resources,” she said.

For UNWTO, building back the tourism market in Rwanda and Africa as a whole is a key priority. The UNWTO Inspiring Africa Branding Challenge is part of its support package, calling for marketing proposals that will create a strong tourism brand that boost traveler confidence — and promote experiences available in Africa as part of its image as a vibrant destination that tourists will consider first when they next travel, both internationally and domestically.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.