An eco-tourism program has been taken to tourism and hospitality enterprises in Rwanda with an aim of increasing their engagement in gorilla conservation and environmental protection so as to compete on the global market.
The Certified Gorilla Friendly™ program was unveiled this November 1, 2022 by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) in collaboration with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP)- both international conservation organizations focusing on ensuring survival of endangered species.
Certified Gorilla Friendly™ Program aims to contribute towards the protection of the endangered Virunga Mountain Gorillas and their habitat. The program consists of three main projects, Certified Gorilla Friendly™ Tourism, Certified Gorilla Friendly™ Park Edge Products and Gorilla Friendly Pledge.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) as an endangered African Great Ape with an estimated global population of 1,063 mountain gorillas thus setting Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism.
To enable the application of these guidelines, WFEN developed the Gorilla Friendly™ Tourism standards for each target key stakeholder in the tourism industry, that include; travel agents, hotels, lodge, tour guides, tour operators and more.
WFEN’s Network and Certification Coordinator, Sheillah Munsabe said that the Gorilla Friendly™ program will ensure the wellbeing of gorillas, people, and ecosystems, through these standards.
Munsabe said this will require signing a voluntary commitment towards protecting mountain gorillas and enabling sustainable tourism in Rwanda and applying for a Gorilla Friendly certification which can benefit the country’s ecotourism drive.
Successful business applicants are awarded the Certified Gorilla Friendly™ Tourism eco-label- which is internationally recognized as the world now moves to promoting eco-tourism.
“This commitment is a way of becoming ambassadors of gorilla conservation in an eco-friendly manner but also showing that the companies put the environment, health first, which will enable them to stand out among many others on the global tourism market,” Munsabe said.
To on-board more tourism and hospitality enterprises in this cause, Munsabe said that WFEN has waived the $250 charge on the gorilla friendly certificate that can be put on eco-tourism products, services and brands made in Rwanda ranging from tour vehicles, coffee, fashion and crafts among others.
So far 1,200 people (national and international) from different domains have taken the pledge however tourism and hospitality staff are highly encouraged to take their pledge to become Gorilla Friendly™ Tourism Ambassadors especially those operating along the Greater Virunga Transboundary Area- a habitat for Gorillas which live in Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo.
In Rwanda, at least 9 park-edge community businesses have undergone the process of becoming Gorilla Friendly eco-friendly and certified initiatives which include women led handcraft, fashion and honey businesses among others.
Anna Behm Masozera, the Technical Advisor for the Certified Gorilla Friendly™ Program and Former Director at the IGCP said that these pledges and certification of eco-friendly products and services means that Rwanda will be able to compete globally and thus increase its tourism revenues while conserving the gorillas and the environment.
Revenues from gorilla tourism have increased by 25 per cent from US$131 million in 2020 to US$164 million in 2021, according to Rwanda Development Board.
Theodore Nzabonimpa, the Managing Director of Beyond Gorillas Experience said that they have been operating on existing RDB general tourism standards but specific standards on gorilla conservation are new to tourism business.
“These additional standards and certification are new but we are ready to take them up so as to improve our services by training our staff and communities we work with,” said Nzabonimpa.
Manzi Kayihura, the Managing Director and co-founder of Thousand Hills Africa, one of Rwanda’s largest tour companies, said that access to information and awareness on standards will be critical in aligning general conservation practices.