Kahuzi Biega National Park Hosts Regional Tour Operators to Improve Park Visibility
While stunning vistas, breathtaking waterfalls, and the chance to observe a family of endangered eastern lowland gorillas in their native habitat may sound like the perfect recipe for a successful tourism attraction, Kahuzi Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo sees only thousands of visitors a year. Ecotourism initiatives have been tremendously successful just over the border in Uganda and Rwanda, where visitors pay top dollar to trek gorillas and chimpanzees, but most of the DRC’s national parks have not yet managed to achieve the same levels of success as similar attractions in the region.
Left: A male Grauer’s Gorilla snacks while watching tourists in Kahuzi Biega National Park. Photo by Eva McNamara, U.S. Forest Service International Programs. Right: Tour Operators begin their trek through the forest with park guides adept at find gorilla families in the dense brush. Photo by Alyssa Dongo, U.S. Forest Service International Programs.
To help the park increase visitor numbers, the U.S. Forest Service, as part of USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, and in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, co-hosted an event last December to welcome twenty regional tour operators from DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda to this unique corner of the country. Part of the challenge that the DRC tourism industry faces is that there are very few tour companies offering excursions in the country, so tourists are limited in what they are able to do and see. In order to develop tour packages, tour operators must be able to organize different types of activities, recommend lodging for different budgets and needs, and be able to ensure that their customers are adequately prepared for their visit. Inviting tour operators to visit the park is the first step in helping them get all the information they need to develop and promote new tour packages to visit the park and the surrounding area.
Over the course of three days, tour operators were able to trek and observe gorillas, visit recently built lodges and campsites, hike to one of the park’s several waterfalls, and visit a primate sanctuary housing orphaned chimpanzees and monkeys who have been rescued from wildlife traffickers. A cultural visit to the Royal Kingdom of Kabare was also arranged and allowed tour operators to learn about the history of the kingdom and enjoy the vibrant dancing of the Bushi people.
The Bushi people welcomed the tour operators to the Royal Kingdom of Kabare, performing traditional dances for their guests in the sunshine. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dongo, U.S. Forest Service International Programs.
On their final day, tour operators received a guided tour of Bukavu, a nearby city nestled on the banks of Lake Kivu. They were able to learn about the history of the city by visiting sites of interest such as the cathedral and monuments. They also were able to see various hotels, an important step in helping them better cater to the needs and interests of potential visitors.
Given that the DRC is still developing their tourism infrastructure, having travel plans organized by a professional tour company with intimate knowledge of the region’s customs and politics can make all the difference for tourists considering a visit to this unique part of the world. Coordination with the park is an integral part of this process, so welcoming these businesses and helping them to discover the area and its attractions is an important step for Kahuzi Biega as it looks to increase the number of visiting tourists each year.
Bukavu is a colorful lakeside city located about an hour from the park. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dongo, U.S. Forest Service International Programs.
Successful partnerships between these operators and the park will not only encourage more people to visit Kahuzi Biega but will also help the park support itself financially. In the past few years, Kahuzi Biega, with the support of its numerous partners, has managed to increase the number of lowland gorillas living inside the park, despite low levels of visitors compared to other parks in the region. More visitors would mean a more stable income for the park, as well as more widespread awareness about the ecological and historical importance of this area of the world.
Programs like these are an integral part of creating sustainable streams of income that can support parks and local communities to develop and conserve their forests. The U.S. Forest Service International Programs sees ecotourism development as an important economic opportunity for Central African countries and will continue to support those working to conserve and protect parks, forests, and wildlife in the region.