When the Management of Virunga National Park unveiled mikeno lodge in January 2012 to cater for the accommodation needs of the increasing number of tourists flocking the park in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the posh forest lodge was received with high turnovers of visitors in the first three months. But that experience was short lived and currently, the lodge is nearly empty.
"It went really well after it was built," says Luanne Cadd, Communications Officer at the park, adding, "We managed to fill out about 40% of our capacity with just three months of the lodge's existence." Although the bar still attracts clients and the employees are in place, the stillness currently characterizing the environment surrounding the lodge is a sign of no business. This is the direct impact of the nearly four months long conflict that is shattering Eastern DRC.
According to the Park's Director Emmanuel De Merode, 2012 was set to be a good year for business but the rise of the rebel group March 23 (M23), which is demanding for fair treatment from the Congolese government, has put business on the standstill, and relocated more than 470,000 people, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The refugees are currently distributed in 31 camps, which are all managed by UNCHR in the North-Kivu province where they are given food, shelter and other life necessities.
In late August, the park suffered a heart-breaking loss. One of four gorilla babies, Kaboko, lost his life to complications arising from an acute gastro-intestinal infection. The area of Rumangabo where the park is located had seen an increase in the conflict and the night of Kaboko's death, violent fighting which included gunfire was taking place just outside the headquarters of the park prohibiting veterinarians to see Kaboko.
"The death of Kaboko came as a great shock to us. We are now focusing on moving on and providing care for our three remaining gorillas" De Merode says, adding that this was the gorilla orphanage of its kind in the world.
Shortly after, the rebels claimed Rumangabo, the Park headquarter suddenly found itself with some rather unusual neighbors and De Merode felt obliged to halt all tourism activities, which included gorilla-trekking, trekking Mount Nyarigongo and chimpanzee tours. Virunga National Park covers an area of 7,800 square kilometers (sqkm).
"This has been extremely hard" De Merode narrates, adding, "It's been extra disappointing because we felt like this was going be our year." This year the park was gearing up for its most successful summer season after seeing a growing number of tourists coming to the Virungas. And with Rwanda's recent increase in gorilla permit prices from $500 to $750, coupled with successive years of growth in DR Congo's tourism, the park's sky-high expectations fell down hard. "Being located in DR Congo, we cater for the more adventurous tourists, but the security situation is simply to fragile in this area right now," De Merode says.
Since the park opened to the public in 2009, the interest in visiting it has been on the steady rise. In the same year, 520 tourists visited the park, spending $220,000. In 2010, the number more than tripled with 1800 visitors and revenues exceeding $500,000. Then, in 2011, 3000 people visited the park and the tourism receipts rose to $800,000. This year (2012), until the conflict re-sparked, 1200 visitors had visited the park."The finances were very strong until April. We saw 80% to 100% growth in revenues each year since the park opened to tourists, and we were expecting to break a new record this year with 6,000 visitors and $1.5 million in revenues," the frustrated De Merode, says.
Instead of celebrating record-high revenues, De Merode faces a severe financial headache. The park operations are partly funded by tourism revenues and by different donors, most notably the European Union (EU). However, as the EU-funding period is nearing its end, De Merode's frustration on what to do with the park's 50 plus fulltime employees is growing. "So far we haven't had to let anyone go among the national staff. We only had to release our expat staff and we are looking to keep it that way."
Employees are worried, too
Still, the employees are affected. They feel both the financial decline as well as the rise of insecurity in the park. 45 rangers have remained in the park to keep order but their families have been evacuated to a refugee camp near the town of Goma. Christian Shamavu who has worked in the park for the past 10 years, three of them as Chief of Canine Section, has seen his wife and three children relocating to the refugee camp.
"I talk to my wife nearly every day. Last time, she said that all of the families from the park were well fed and received medical attention," says Shamavu. "But it's very difficult for her to take care of the children with our little boy. He needs a lot of attention as he is only nine months old."
The average salary for Park Rangers is $40 dollars a month. On top of that, the park gives them $135 in bonuses per month, which comes from tourism revenues. Bonuses are still being distributed after the closure of the park, but there is no guarantee how long it will be able to afford the expense without revenues.
"We used to survive because of those bonuses, and we are very worried about the lack of guarantees now that the park has closed" Shamavu says, adding, "We were hoping the bonuses would increase as more and more tourists come, but now we are not even sure we will get anything."
The downturn of tourism revenues also has impact on the local community. 30% of the park's revenue is re-distributed towards projects that improve the welfare of the local community. Hence, since opening in 2009, the park has funded construction of nine schools and several water posts. The schools are attended by children living in local villages and those living in the park and the water posts have saved the population time and efforts as they no longer have to climb a hill to get clean water.
Sign of hope
Conflict and war engenders devastating effect on human life and human activity and consequently businesses suffer too in times of instability. But as an old saying goes, when one door closes a new one opens. In the midst of despondency, unexpected help has offered itself to the park. Soon after the conflict reoccurred, Cadd set up www.virungacrisis.org , a website fundraising to support the park, and the results have been encouraging. "During the first week of the website's launch, it raised more money than one month's worth of tourism revenues. Last month the website raised more than $50,000 over the internet alone," Cadd says.
And as much as the conflict is a punch to the DRC's young tourism sector, De Merode is still optimistic. "Rwanda's figures for wildlife tourism look really good, they just keep growing although the price of gorilla trekking went up. It's a sellers market. And DRC has a lot of assets that Rwanda lacks. So I am very optimistic about the future for tourism in this area", he says.
Rich in soil, poor in spirits
However, in Goma town, 40 kilometers out of the park, Emile Asharav, 26, a self-employed businessman, wanders the volcanic roads disillusioned. The conflict has affected him in another way and he does not share De Merode's optimism for the future. "This land is rich in soil but poor in spirits."
To some small business owners, maintaining operations becomes an effort with life at stake. Asharav owns a shop in Goma that sells clothes that he imports from the Ugandan capital Kampala. However, since M23 conquered the Ugandan border in the beginning of July, Asharav has had to travel through Gisenyi, in Rwanda to reach Kampala.
"I don't want to take the risk of traveling through a conflict zone, so I have no choice but to spend more to try and save my business," he says. "A pair of jeans that used to cost $9 now costs $15," says Asharav. "I lost clients who were scared to spend money during the conflict, and I'm losing those who aren't afraid because of the new prices."
The increasing number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is fueling business activities in Kanyarucinya village, which hosts one of the refugee camps, just in 10 kilometers out of Goma town. Some people come to the camp carrying all their property such as clothes, furniture, cooking utensils, plastic ware and livestock such as hens on their back, in large trucks or more rarely, in private vehicles. Others arrive wearing only the clothes they put on the day of escape. A refugee market has emerged in along the main road in Kanyarucinya. Small stalls are arranged along the road that pumps life to the camp. Vendors sell blankets for tired refugees to rest on, roasted corn with salt to ease hunger, while mandazi, bread, fruits and vegetables are put on display on colorful fabrics. Around the stalls are soldiers, refugees, locals and NGO-workers ensemble and sharing laughter, a soda or a chat.