The Journey of Amahoro Tours – A Pioneering Ecotourism Business
Amahoro Tours is an ecotourism business that is a fantastic example of what sustainable, mindful tourism can achieve. “Amahoro” translated means Peace. The main aim of the business is to use tourism as a way of contributing to local economic development as well as international understanding of what ecotourism can do .
The story of Amahoro Tours in Rwanda proves that ecotourism business can thrive in certain destinations where there is a strong need for tourism that has a positive impact on the local environment. The journey of this now successful sustainable tourism company started 14 years ago back in 2001. The aim was to see how tourism could contribute to peace and positive development in Rwanda. This was the companies’ first ambition, but they had big hopes for the future, eventually hoping to become the leading ecotourism company in Rwanda.
2001 may have been when the company was first starting to be put together, but the real story of Amahoro Tours began long before this. Greg Bakunzi, who now runs the company was born in a refugee camp in Lake Albert, Uganda. His parents fled there from Rwanda in 1959, Greg ended up living in the refugee camp until he was 18. He had a very limited education and grew up in poverty and conflict, yet he still had a burning desire to learn and make a difference in the world.
After seeing what his country went through and witnessing the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda Greg knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to help rebuild the country his parents once knew. After returning to the country in 1994 he began working towards his dreams of a brighter future. After the conflict people were very wary of Rwanda as a travel destination and their faith had to be rebuilt.
Greg moved to Ruhengeri and found himself not far from the famous mountain Gorillas. He witnessed what all the tour companies were doing and saw an opportunity to provide something different. Tourism doesn’t have to solely be about making money for companies and showing tourists the sights.
Greg had a vision and believed that tourism had the potential to do so much more. Some travellers like to take something away from their trip and contribute to local communities. ‘I just knew the value of my own ideas and because I was highly motivated to enter the tourism industry plus my direct experience as an entrepreneur in a developing country, all this gave me the tools needed to succeed.’
Greg’s first experience of working in the travel industry was when he worked as a driver, taking tourists from the Ugandan border-town of Kisoro into Rwanda to visit the Gorillas. It was during this time that some of his ideas were developed. After some time Greg began to make his mark on the local tourism industry. These years spent driving tourists were crucial for Greg as he built relationships and obtained useful contacts.
Amahoro Tours was officially registered in 2003 and his dream started to become a reality. The mission of Amahoro Tours is to ‘focus on the interaction between locals and visitors to promote a sustainable local development and strengthening communities in order to improve the living conditions and quality of life.’
Amahoro Tours offers numerous activities for travelers that help the local community. ‘The majority of Amahoro Tours’ activities focus on visits to our many partners such as the traditional healers, brick makers and the banana bark weavers.’ They guarantee a unique experience for the visitor and, where possible, even a chance join in and get your hands dirty.
Guests can try things like brewing banana beer, basket weaving and dance lessons with the locals. These aren’t your everyday activities but memories that tourists will treasure. ‘I aspire in every step of my business to create opportunities for fellow Rwandans. We encourage our clients to get involved directly with the community.’
The locals benefit from the custom and enjoy interacting with tourists from around the world. The company also strives to employ local people to work in the hotels where possible. They also run local craft centres where some of the locals can make some money as well as mastering new skills. ‘From the start, we have made a point of training and employing members of the community, who traditionally haven’t benefitted from tourism.’
Amahoro also works hard to support the endangered Mountain Gorillas. They have turned people who were once poachers into passionate conservationists. Amahoro Tours offers trips to see the Mountain Gorillas that last between three and five days. They are very mindful of the Gorillas needs and follow the local rules and regulations to ensure they are not disturbed. They also support GorillaDoctors.org, an organisation dedicated to saving the Mountain Gorillas.
There are around 700 Mountain Gorillas left around the world, but around half of them live in Virunga National Park. Conservation in this area is crucial to the survival of this species and Amahoro Tours is well aware of this. The Mountain Gorillas have endured tough times in recent years with conflict and being targeted by poachers. Greg Bakunzi is very proud of being able to turn even a few former poachers into dedicated conservationists. The poachers thought that killing Gorillas was the only way they could make money, but Greg and Amahoro Tours are trying to convince them they can make a living through tourism instead.
Although Amahoro Tours has achieved so much there were bumps along the way. One of the biggest challenges was getting the community to understand the whole concept of our mission. We had to show the local people how our business would be of value to them, and how we planned to help the local area and run a sustainable tourism business. Sustainable tourism has been around for about 20 years now, but there is still a lack of belief that it is possible some small communities. We overcame this problem by getting locals involved and finding ways to show them the value we could add. As soon as Amahoro Tours was up and running our vision became clear to them.
Amahoro Tours has also partnered with many organisations to help achieve their dream. From international NGO’s to local community organizations and individuals who are passionate about Amahoro’s aims. It’s with help from these organisations that they can really make a difference and spread the word about conservation and Amahoro’s initiatives. One of the biggest successes over the years was the Red Rocks (a project run by Amahoro Tours) programmes and how they have contributed to the welfare of the locals around the protected areas. Red Rocks is a social enterprise that takes tourism to the next level and allows guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in local culture.
Red Rocks is a guest house and camp site near Musanze in Rwanda, and it’s right on the doorstep of Musanze National Park. Here you can see four out of the eight active volcanoes in Virunga chain. At Red Rocks they are now working to train the guides from within the local community. It also enables tourists to see the real Rwanda, through its people and also witness the spectacular scenery. Amahoro and its umbrella of services enables tourists to go on tailor-made tours where they can experience the true beauty of Rwanda and interact with the local population. The key is to create a link between tourism and conservation (Linking Tourism & Conservation LT&C) and this is only possible by creating specific tours, initiatives and projects that have a positive impact on the local people, wildlife, national parks and protected areas. Despite all this hard work and the struggles that come with trying to run a business like this, Amahoro Tours are still striving to build on their successes. The aim is to continue
to create projects such as Red Rocks and promote their business on a wider scale, so that more people can discover the benefits of ecotourism. The ups and downs have been totally worth it, all you have to do is look at the people whose lives have improved because of Amahoro Tours and see the positive impact the business is having on the local community and environment.