United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)'s theme for 2017 is sustainable tourism, a subject not so new in Rwanda. The country's conservation journey began more than a decade ago and has since progressed enormously.
Although small geographically, Rwanda is known for addressing large-scale challenges in conservation.
For instance, Rwanda has recently become one of the three East African countries that offer tourists a 'Big 5' experience, having reintroduced both lions and eastern black rhinoceros into Akagera National Park.
Such bold measures have undoubtedly positioned Rwanda throughout the world as a role model in conservation within Africa. However, despite Rwanda's conservation successes, the country's leadership acknowledges the constant need to improve its best practice standards.
Ahead of this year's Kwita Izina, Rwanda's flagship event celebrating with the community and the world at large the successful preservation of our endangered mountain gorilla population through the naming of new-born baby gorillas, new tariffs have been announced for mountain gorilla trekking activities, a milestone within the global tourism industry.
The primary objective of these revised tariffs is to ensure the long-term sustainability of a fragile species in a world that is increasingly challenged in protecting bio-diversity and natural assets for future generations.
"Rwanda's mountain gorillas are the best studied gorillas in the world. And the decades of data accumulated on them continue to provide crucial insights into their conservation needs," said Dr. Tara Stoinski, President and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which has been working in Rwanda for fifty years.
"With the growth in the gorilla population, we are seeing much higher rates of interactions between gorilla groups, which our data clearly show can be very stressful as well as increase rates of injury and/or death. Given that mountain gorillas remain among the most critically endangered animals on the planet, it is essential that we try to minimize pressures on the population and continue to pursue all measures to ensure their long-term future."
Rwanda is developing an ambitious strategy to increase buffer zones to protected areas, thus addressing the challenges in the current carrying capacity restrictions for a growing mountain gorilla population.
This will require enormous long-term investment and is one of the critical foundations to conservation sustainability. Not only is there a plan to increase the Volcanoes National Park buffer zone, but also mountain gorilla tourism revenues are subsidizing the conservation of other national parks.
Specifically support is given to protecting Nyungwe National Park, one of Africa's largest protected mountain rain forests acclaimed for its biodiversity and endemic species richness, as well as Gishwati-Mukura National Park.
In 2016, Rwanda created its fourth national park - Gishwati-Mukura National Park. This park is made up of two fragmented mountain forests, and is home for chimpanzees (an endangered species) and golden monkeys that need to be protected. The park requires massive Government of Rwanda investment to restore it to the standards of other national parks, funding that is directly related to tourism revenues.
Conservation is acknowledged worldwide as a prerequisite for sustainable tourism and economic development. Trekking mountain gorillas is the backbone to the thriving tourism industry whereby the exceptional experience offered in Remarkable Rwanda is undeniably a highly valued unique experience for so many tourists globally.
With one-third of the world's remaining mountain gorillas, easy air access, one of the safest destinations in Africa, a well-guided experience, and a thriving hospitality industry, this key tourist activity attracts more and more visitors each year.
Despite pressure for Rwanda to increase gorilla trekking visitation, the country has maintained its strong conservation-based regulations and limited the number of visits and time spent with each group (one hour).
As quoted by Dr. Mike Cranfield, Co-Director for Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project/ Gorilla Doctors:
"Mountain Gorilla trekking is one of the most moving wildlife experiences in the world. It has been an overwhelming conservation and economical success for Rwanda. Rather than increase the number of tourists to increase conservation revenue to help other critical species in this country they have decided to increase the price. This is a sound choice since the gorillas are extremely sensitive to human diseases and increasing the human traffic in the forest would be counter-productive. The increased income will allow improved infrastructure not only for the Volcanoes National Park but the other National Parks in Rwanda. The permit increases will also help the local communities with increased revenue sharing resulting in less pressure on the park such as snares set for bush meat that sometimes injure gorillas. These changes along with the proposed buffer zone show sound conservation governance."
Another strong foundation to Rwanda's tourism and conservation vision is that of revenue sharing with local communities. Empowering communities living nearby National Parks economically through providing a greater share of tourism revenues to fund development projects has in the past contributed greatly to conservation practices.
The revenue contribution from total tourism receipts will increase from 5% to 10%, which will quadruple the absolute revenues received by communities. Over the past 12 years, more than 400 community development projects have been delivered including health centers, schools, business development centers and water supply systems facilitating access to clean water.
These projects directly benefit communities and ensure their support of Rwanda's broader conservation programmes, and in particular of law enforcement.
"An initiative which will reinvest a greater amount in real currency and as a percentage of revenue into conservation through enhanced protection and revenue sharing with local people - without compromising the principles and best practices approaches to gorilla tourism - should be celebrated," states Anna Behm Masozera, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
"Should the initiative also add value to the tourist experience, continuing to attract tourists from near and far, then benefits will radiate through all sectors."
Throughout history, humans have been the cause of the extinction of large numbers of mega-fauna species; the nature of today's threats and the scale of interventions required pose massive challenges and large budgetary deficits for intervention tactics.
Rwanda's driving ambition is to ensure the survival of our critically-endangered species and bio-diversity for future generations to enjoy.
"I hope, and in fact fully expect, international tourists will continue to travel to Rwanda and to the region to experience a moment in time with the critically-endangered mountain gorillas, free and wild in their native forests," states Anna Behm Masozera, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
With regard to the Transboundary collaboration within the three countries of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and how this works to protect the endangered species, Dr. Muamba Tshibasu Georges, GVTC Executive Secretariat explained that:
"The Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, an initiative set up by the three countries sharing the mountain gorilla population, is a laudable expression of their high commitment to collaborate in safeguarding a highly endangered species, as well as other biodiversity contained within the Protected Area Network of the Greater Virunga Landscape. GVTC recognizes that the treaty signed by these three countries commits them for collaboration, but countries remain sovereign to focus on their individual bigger visions. GVTC - Executive Secretariat will continue supporting all initiatives aiming at the sustainable conservation of the biodiversity in the landscape, particularly the fragile Mountain Gorilla population and their habitat."
There is great importance attached to balancing the protection of the natural resources and development in Rwanda for both the present and future generations to thrive.
That is the vision for sustainable tourism and conservation that has been set for this country.
The writer is the Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwanda Development Board.