When they're scouting destinations for incentive programs, planners look for places that are luxurious, beautiful and fun. Monaco fits the bill perfectly. So do Grand Cayman, New Zealand and Alaska. But Rwanda? The African nation that once made headlines for its grisly genocide doesn't exactly scream "luxe." At least, it didn't use to. But 25 years after the country's darkest hour -- a civil war during which the ruling government slaughtered nearly 1 million of its citizens -- Rwanda's tides finally are beginning to turn.
With the passage of time, even a nation's deepest bloodstains begin to fade. When they eventually do, other, more buoyant qualities can come to the fore -- including opulence and adventure, both of which are thriving in post-war Rwanda despite its bleak past.
In fact, Rwanda has become so fashionable that international travel-agency network Virtuoso recently named it to its "Hot 10" list of emerging destinations. Rwanda, it reported, has seen a year-over-year increase of 114 percent in bookings by U.S. travelers.
If you're an incentive planner who likes to stay on the cutting-edge of travel, a trip to this central African nation might be in order. Here are five reasons why.
1. Rwanda's economy is strong.
Because they tend to be safer, more stable and have more infrastructure, the heartiest tourism destinations typically are those with the strongest economies. In 2000, after the genocide, Rwanda's new government launched Vision 2020, a political, social and economic program whose goal was to transform the impoverished country into a middle-income nation by 2020. Although Rwanda hasn't yet achieved its goal -- it now plans to achieve middle-income status by 2035 -- progress is undeniable. According to the World Bank economic growth averaged 7.5 percent per year from 2007 to 2017, while per capita gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 4.7 percent annually. The latter was just $146 in 1994; today, it's nearly $830. The World Bank's Doing Business index, meanwhile, ranks Rwanda as the 29th easiest place to do business in the world, making it the only low-income country to crack the top 30.
2. Rwanda is safe.
The U.S. State Department uses a four-level rating system to communicate whether travel destinations are safe for U.S. visitors. The current rating for Rwanda is "Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions." That's the same as Canada and Australia, and better than the United Kingdom, Mexico and France, all of which are rated "Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution." "Most reported incidents involve petty theft, and residential and hotel room robberies," the State Department says.
3. Rwanda is easy to reach.
Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from the United States to Rwanda. But even so, Rwanda is relatively easy to get to. Numerous airlines fly into its capital, Kigali, including Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and KLM. Rwanda thus is never more than a single stop away from most major U.S. cities. Plus, entry is easy thanks to a simple $30 visa that's paid upon arrival at the airport.
4. Rwanda is filled with spectacular sites.
Rwanda's four national parks are bewitching, wondrous and wild. The most popular and best known is Volcanoes National Park, home to five dormant volcanoes -- including Mount Karisimbi, which is the largest at 14,787 feet tall. Although active and adventurous visitors can ascend it during a two-day hike, most tourists come not to walk, but rather to watch. The object of their gaze: 12 families of endangered mountain gorillas that live in the area, which visitors can see in their natural habitat by claiming one of only 96 permits that are issued to tourists each day. The rainforest at Volcanoes National Park also is home to 200 species of birds and the rare golden monkey. Although Rwanda is not known as a destination for traditional African safaris, lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard can be spotted at Akagera National Park. And for chimpanzees, head to Nyungwe National Park or Gishwati Mukura National Park, both of which are home to chimps and various other primates.
5. Rwanda is teeming with new -- and sustainable -- travel options.
As travel demand has increased in Rwanda, so, too, has travel supply. There are business hotels -- like the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre, Kigali, which opened in 2016 with 292 guest rooms and a 346,000-square-foot convention center -- but also numerous new incentive options that are both sumptuous and sustainable, for groups that want to feel good and do good. In 2017, for example, Wilderness Safaris opened Bisate Lodge next to Volcanoes National Park. Featuring six luxurious forest villas, the eco-friendly lodge offers guided walks, gorilla trekking, tree-planting via its reforestation program and incredible views of two volcanoes. This spring, Wilderness Safaris opened yet another Rwandan property, Magashi Camp, at Akagera National Park. Comprising six high-end tents, a lounge, a dining and bar area, a pool and an expansive viewing deck, it's a plush home base from which to enjoy a Rwandan safari.
Another hotelier that's betting big on Rwanda is One&Only. In October 2018, the chain opened One&Only Nyungwe House next to Nyungwe Forest, which is known for its diverse primate population; located on a working tea plantation, the property offers 22 guest rooms and suites within five wooden villa clusters, not to mention activities like spear throwing, archery, chimpanzee trekking and tea picking/tasting. A second Rwandan property, One&Only Gorilla's Nest, is expected to open later this year with 21 rooms and suites at Volcanoes National Park.
Finally, there's the Singita Kwitonda Lodge, which opened this month, also at Volcanoes National Park. Featuring eight suites and a four-bedroom villa known as Kataza House, it has an on-site nursery that's dedicated to reforestation, a fruit and herb garden that supports farm-to-table dining, and a Gear Room stocked with technical gear for guests who partake in gorilla treks at the adjacent park.
The world will never forget Rwanda's tragic past. At these properties and the precious sites around them, however, incentive recipients will receive an exclusive preview of Rwanda's promising future.