Kigali — In May 2012, officials from South Sudan (SS) were in Rwanda's capital Kigali for the fourth Network of Reformers (NoR) meet.
The conference is a peer-to-peer learning event in which countries share notes for best practices to improve investment environments in their economies.
During the country status report presentations on what participating countries were doing to reform the investment environments in their respective economies, SS told delegates that their ambition was to emulate Rwanda by steering a recovery campaign after decades of war.
"To do that, you guys will have to give peace a chance otherwise that recovery will remain a white elephant dream," observed a participant.
As SS prepares to celebrate its 2nd independence anniversary in July this year, peace remains a 'white elephant dream' indeed as violent squabbles still linger with the government in the North.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda where SS seeks to draw inspiration for economic recovery, the country is enjoying the fruits of peace less than two decades since the genocide.
"In 2012, Rwanda hosted 1, 075, 829 visitors compared to 908, 001 in 2011 which represents an increase of 22%," said Rica Rwigamba, the head of tourism and conservation unit at the Rwanda Development board (RDB) who attributed the results to extra opening hours of some of the land borders since October last year.
According to Rwigamba, tourism as a whole earned the country US$281.8million dollars compared to US$251.3million in 2011 posting an increase in revenues of 17%.
"The tourism sector is on an upward trajectory. We are now working to enhance the sector through continuous product diversification while putting an emphasis on an excellent service delivery within the sector," explained Rwigamba.
Tourism earnings single handedly saved Rwanda's general exports' earnings in a year when the value of traditional exports on the international market declined despite a tremendous growth in volumes.
For instance, while Rwanda's exports grew by 73% in volume in 2012, it couldn't reflect the growth in value which was only 24.8%. Coffee dropped in value by a staggering 18.4% in 2012 a development attributed to the fall in the commodity prices at the international market this despite the fact that the crop had registered an 8.9% growth in volume.
Value addition for coffee will have to be encouraged in 2013 if coffee export earnings are to be resurrected.
This would also require identifying and consolidating new markets especially in Asia where growth will be healthier compared to Europe and America whose economies' growth is projected to stagnate.
Rwanda's central government understands the unreliability of agricultural sector which used to be the country's backbone.
Last week, Mr. John Rwangombwa, Rwanda's minister of Finance and economic planning put more eggs in the tourism basket by announcing that the government will lend several billions of francs to the ongoing construction project of the behind schedule Kigali convention centre whose main target is conference tourism earnings.
The convention centre will be one of its kinds in the region and coupled with other factors that have made Rwanda a shining and more attractive brand internationally, will most definitely make Rwanda a regional hub for conferences.
The convention centre will be an addition to new investments from internationally acclaimed brands that are already establishing shop in Kigali. These include Marriott, Hilton and Radisson Blue Hotels whose completion will add to Rwanda's current 6500 available rooms in the hotel sector. Marriott Hotel alone whose construction stands at over 70% will add more than 250 rooms to join Serena Hotel and a few others with five star services in Kigali.
Poor customer service remains the biggest hitch bothering a sector with a potential for a billion dollar revenues in the next decade.
"We are working hand in hand with members of the tourism chamber to improve the customer service in the sector and solve the skills gap that is found to be a hindrance to professional service delivery," remarks Rwigamba.
The rate of investment attraction in the sector coupled with the growing number of visitors per year are seen as factors that bookmakers say would soon make Rwanda's tourism a billion dollar industry in less than a decade to come.
Figures for the back to back investment trend support this billion dollar prediction.
There was an investment increase of 175% from US$117.3million in 2011 to a massive haul of US$323.8million in 2012 with Rica Rwigamba attributing this to attraction of big money investments including Hilton hotels and others.
Gorilla tracking in the Virunga still remains the biggest attraction to Rwanda but efforts are in place to develop the entertainment sector and add more glitter to Kigali's night life to ensure visitors stay longer hence spend more.
Domestic tourism is also on the agenda with efforts in place to encourage Rwandans to visit their own attractions as well as regional EAC visitors.
The USA continues to be the leading source of tourists to Rwanda with RDB statistics indicating that at least 18,459 Americans visited Rwanda followed by 10,126 British, 7,675 Belgians and 7,103 Germans.
Leisure attracted 70,383 visitors a growth of 17% while business visitors grew by 19% to attract 295,322.
By September 2012, at least 639,536 tourists from within the EAC region and DRC had visited Rwanda a growth of 34% compared to the same period in 2011.
In 2013, the tourism bill is expected to be passed by parliament and end the current absence of a legal regulator of the sector a development that could increase the profitability levels.
More to that, Akagera National park in the east of the country will also be boosted with a new animal tribe to attract more visitors while there are also efforts to fence off the Savanna Park, which is home to Giraffe, Zebras and various bird species.
In order to promote harmony between the human settlements and wildlife around the parks, Rwigamba reveals that a good percentage of tourism earnings have been channeled to community development aimed at contributing to the communities' welfare under the revenue sharing framework.
"RDB committed an additional 5% of park revenues to the compensation fund that is currently managed by Special Guarantee Fund and the revenue sharing scheme has benefited community schools, health centers and handcraft cooperatives," explained Rwigamba.
Peace in the city is attracting international hotels. South Sudan will need peace to piece up its shattered economy. If Rwanda has done it without oil wells, why not SS?