interviewBy Bosco Hitimana
On June 14, the East African Tourism Platform was unveiled in Rwanda. It seeks to advocate for the interests of private tourism operators in the five partner states of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi and promote the region as a single tourist destination. The Independent's Business Editor, Bosco Hitimana spoke to Mr. Richard Rugimbana, the Chairperson of the Platform, who doubles as the Executive Secretary of the Tourism Federation of Tanzania, on how the platform intends to push tourism development on the regional integration agenda.
Could you tell us about the East African Tourism Platform?
It is a forum for the tourism private sector bodies in the five member states of the East African Community (EAC)--Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi--where we can meet, discuss and address issues of common interest.
When was it formed?
This is an idea which was developed in April last year (2011) but through discussions and initiatives; it was formerly established in April 2012.
How many members do you have so far?
We have five members. In each country, there is a private sector body that represents all the private tourism operators and it is this body that represents their interests on the regional platform.
What issues do you intend to address through this platform for the sake of building a coherent regional tourism sector?
All the five countries have problems of marketing promotion and this is an issue we want to address. We have problems of standards and the quality of services and we want to address this. We all have issues related to policies and regulations and we want to address them. We all promote tourism but how do we combine similar products and promote them as one package? In Tanzania we have Safari to Serengeti National Park and in Rwanda there is gorilla trekking so how can we combine these two products and sell them as one? So there are many issues we can address together as a business community.
What's your approach towards addressing these issues?
We just started; we have not gone into the details of these issues. It is only recently that we formed a secretariat and we have employed a staff. But our approach will be to identify the obstacles in each partner state and then see how we can develop a common approach to deal with the identified issues using our own contacts but also using the EAC process.
The tourism sector in some member states is more developed than in others. Examples could be Rwanda and Burundi which have potential but they still lack critical skills in order to fully exploit their potentials. How will this platform help to bring them on the level of other member states to ensure an equal development?
Through the platform, members will be able to take advantage of certain skills and practices in other member states that have done extremely well in some areas. If we believe that Rwanda has a product but it faces challenges of developing it, we are not politicians, we are business people, we can come in and help to develop and promote it as well. We will also confront governments and politicians to try and address certain internal issues for the benefit of the tourism sector not only in that particular country but for the entire region.
Can you elaborate on how you intend to deal with skills shortage in Rwanda in particular because it is one of the biggest challenges currently the hospitality business faces?
Skills development is one is one of the issues we discussed as private operators. We don't have institutions to train but we can initiate exchange programs for example people working in the hotel business in Rwanda can go and work in the same area in Kenya and the same can happen between Tanzanian and Rwanda. With such an approach, we can allow people to transfer skills from one member state to another. We can also try to promote certain training institutions to offer the needed trainings.
The planned issuance of a single tourist visa across the five partner states is still pending. As private operators, are you losing anything, or do you really want this visa to be issued?
Currently, it does not really affect us but by having a single tourist visa, it will be easier for the visitors to access our products. Through this platform, we want to try and put pressure on the governments to give it a try because at the end of the day, the more numbers of tourists, the more all countries benefit. There are more benefits in having the single visa than not having it.
Why is it still pending then?
The challenges are the income which goes to the government and how it will be divided among the partner states and this is a big challenge. Another challenge is how ready is each country in terms of its systems to facilitate the whole visa-checking system. Countries must have harmonized systems.
Do you see challenges along the way as you try to develop a coherent East African tourism sector?
There are challenges of inward looking in some countries and there are challenges of competition, and challenges of fear in some states thinking that if they open up, they will be swallowed by other states. But I think with time, through this platform we can discuss these issues openly and address them.