Rwanda will host the secretariat of the East Africa Tourism Platform, a regional private sector body for tourism in the East African region, which was set up by TradeMark East Africa in 2011.
The platform was established as an initiative to promote the East African Community as one tourism destination, and some describe it as a lobby group for tourism business.
During an online webinar held on Tuesday, Rwanda was confirmed as the latest host of the body's secretariat, appointing three Rwandan members to be part of the governance committee.
Amiable Rutagarama, the Rwanda Chamber of Tourism Chairperson, Frank Gisha Mugisha, the Director General of the Rwanda Chamber of Tourism at the Private Sector Federation (PSF), and Bonita Mutoni, Chairperson of the Rwanda Travel and Tours Association, will lead the organization in Rwanda.
Trademark East Africa announced a financial package of $250,000 (approximately Rwf 238.4 million) towards supporting the body's operations, including market development, advocacy, and institutional capacity, among others.
Waturi Matu, a senior director at Trademark East Africa, praised the platform for acting as an initiative that has spearheaded the marketing of the EAC region as one travel market.
The organisation worked with national airlines of EAC countries to convince them to reduce airfares and grant each other fifth freedom rights, to facilitate travel and tourism in the region.
The launch of the platform comes at a time when tourism in the region is struggling after taking a heavy hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has devastated countries.
Tourism and hospitality in all EAC countries have been affected, with national parks closing and hotel occupancy going down to zero except for a few cases where accommodation facilities are used as quarantine centres.
Emmanuel Nsabimana, the Head of Tourism Regulation at the Rwanda Development Board revenues have shrunk as operators lost business, sending the industry into losses.
"In March, we estimated a loss of Rwf30 billion for the hospitality industry; at least from 207 hotel businesses and 1,000 members," he noted in a webinar.
A part from losing revenues, he added, many operators are struggling to repay bank loans.
Tourism is Rwanda's top foreign exchange earner, contributing directly 3 per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP) and 10 per cent indirectly, and represents 8 per cent of off-farm jobs.
Revenues generated from the industry represent 21 per cent of total exports, according to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
It's not just in Rwanda, the industry has been devastated in other countries.
"Working capital is nearly nonexistent among many operators in the region," Pearl Kakooza, the President of the Uganda Tourism Association, noted.
"This is why we think governments should (as some have already done) to set aside recovery funds for affected businesses, and we must open up regionally," she added.
In Tanzania, tourism operators have been left with no business despite the country not imposing any lockdown measures, according to Richard Rugimbana, the Executive Secretary of Tourism Confederation of Tanzania.
Last year, the tourism industry in Tanzania generated some $2.6 billion and attracted 1.5 million tourists.
"But with Covid-19 pandemic, all tourism operators lost business, because of cancellation of bookings and postponement of tours," Rugimbana indicated.
As countries get ready to reopen business, operators think there is a need for harmonized tourism strategies in the region to revive the sector and turn around its fortunes in the long term.
Fred Odek, the incoming chairperson of the East Africa Tourism Platform (EATP), highlighted that one of the priority focus areas will be to revive the sector in the region.
EATP works with national ministries responsible for tourism, wildlife, trade and transport portfolios, the EAC Secretariat, and private sector organisations.
It does so through advocacy, marketing, facilitating access to finance and risk management services, skills development, research and information sharing.
Rwanda has established an economic recovery fund through which most affected businesses, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industry can leverage to reopen.