Virtual tours bring Rwanda to tourists as virus limits global travel

(4 Aug 2020) LEAD IN:
Coronavirus has closed borders and stifled the tourism industry around the world.
But in Rwanda, tech entrepreneurs are creating online virtual reality tours to tempt visitors back to the country.

Patrick Karangwa is a bit of an expert with a camera.
And today he’s taking pictures that he hopes will be seen all over the world.
Karangwa is CEO of Kigali 360, a company that creates virtual tours of some of Rwanda’s most impressive sights.
He launched the project in 2018 with a camera and two lenses which he bought for $1,600.
“I realised that Rwanda as a country and in general also Africa were underrepresented on Google Maps, on digital maps, this is where the idea came from, I realised that this technology we could do it our self and it was affordable,” he says.
Now his work has become more important than ever.
The coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on tourism around the world, with closed borders and nervous holiday makers causing a huge downturn in international travel.
But with Karangwa’s virtual tours, people can still walk the streets of Kigali – it’s just their tour will be digital rather than real life.
A prototype is even being tested where a live guide will be able to communicate with guests as they take a tour.
“It is unfortunate that the pandemic hit the industry in general, but for me as a virtual tour content creator it was actual an opportunity, so people were visiting places using the content I have created and also they got to understand the importance and the advantage the virtual tours can bring to industry as a whole,” says Karangwa.
Last year, tourism brought more than $490 million in revenues to Rwanda, according to the Rwanda Development Board.
But the pandemic has already cost it $45 million this year, due to dwindling tourist numbers and after 45 international meetings scheduled to be held in Kingali were postponed or cancelled.
Perhaps digital tourism can still promote Rwanda as a must-see destination for when the virus lifts and people feel safe to travel again.
Economic analyst Teddy Kaberuka says it can be used to raise awareness of activities tourists might enjoy.
“There are so many, I would say, tourism activities for which people don’t know, so the best way to do it is to start virtual,” he says.
“You expose those packages to the potential tourist and then after looking them, seeing them, they will be much interested, then the virtual tours will be a marketing tool for tourism.”
Tour operator Thousand Hills Africa is one of the Rwandan businesses hit hard by the virus restrictions.
It employs 45 members of staff who would normally be handling thousands of tourists from across the world.
Now, the company is braced for more losses as uncertainty surrounds the industry.
“At this time on the year, it is our peak season, our busiest time, and we don’t have a single tourist in the country yet,’ says Jacqui Sebageni, Managing Director of Thousand Hills Africa.
“So this means that it has impacted us all, from the tour operator, the hotelier, the restaurant owner, the driver guides, the guides in the national parks, it affected everybody because basically everything came to a halt.”
But she sees the potential of going digital to promote activities to customers in the current climate.
“Virtual tours, as you’ve said, we’ve used that a lot during this lockdown time when people were not travelling to entice people to come back, to plan to come back, and to remind people of what’s out there,” she says.

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