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Rebranding 'Hotel Rwanda' into tourist destination

Eighteen years after a genocide that killed 800,000, symbolized in the movie 'Hotel Rwanda,' major hotel chains are moving in to take advantage of growing tourist business.

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"That means more jobs and more opportunities for Rwandans," says Ed Fuller, president and managing director of international lodging at Marriott. While the hotel's key senior management positions will at first be filled by international staff, he says, "the ultimate goal ... is to have all the management positions filled by locally trained and educated people."

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Getting there, however, could prove a greater challenge in Rwanda than anywhere Marriott has been. Indeed, for all its progress – Rwanda earned Africa's first-ever "Top Reformer" ranking on the 2010 World Bank Doing Business Survey – the country remains one of Africa's poorest with roughly 90 percent of citizens working in subsistence farming.

Moreover, only a small minority speak passable English. And although it replaced French as the language of education in 2009 as part of an effort to strengthen ties with Anglophone neighbors, officials acknowledge that older generations, including the teachers charged with leading that transition, pose a significant hurdle.

"Hospitality is a completely new industry to most people here," says Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, an American who cofounded the Akilah Institute for Women, a nonprofit that prepares poor rural women for careers in hospitality. Most of Akilah's 80 students are genocide survivors. Before arriving at Akilah, she says, none had ever set foot in a hotel.

The famed 'Hotel Rwanda'

Ironically, Rwanda is perhaps best known around the world for what was long its sole luxury property, the Hotel des Mille Collines, which provided refuge for more than 1,000 Tutsis during the genocide. Ten years later, the formerly Belgian hotel was depicted in the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda" starring Don Cheadle as the heroic manager Paul Rusesabagina.

Will Rwanda's new global brands help it shed its image of genocide? Or will they become a part of it?

"We will not hide the fact that Rwanda experienced a terrible genocide, however we will not highlight this either," says Andrew McLachlan, Rezidor's vice president for business development for Africa. "Rwanda has moved on."

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