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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Hotel guests splash in the pool at the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda. The country’s sole luxury hotel, which served as refuge for more than a thousand Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, will soon be joined by a new Marriott hotel.

Rwanda's fast-growing capital seems designed to be a magnet for foreign companies, offering shiny new office towers, gourmet coffee shops, and manicured medians dividing the newly paved roads.

Yet ever since genocide swept Rwanda in 1994 – killing at least 800,000 in just 100 days – global brands have stayed away.

That is, until now.

Thanks to bold economic reform that has made Rwanda a leader among sub-Saharan countries, two global hotel chains will soon open new luxury properties in the heart of Kigali: a five-star Marriott Hotel and a four-star Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Center built by the Brussels-based Rezidor Group.

For Rwanda's leaders, the arrival of universally recognizable brands represents much more than the money those companies bring in. It's a stamp of approval that officials here hope will resonate with would-be visitors and investors abroad, sending the message that Rwanda has indeed moved beyond its violent past and is safe, stable, and open for business.

It also is a step with symbolic and practical implications: practical, because high-end hotels create thousands of well-paid jobs; and symbolic, because it confirms for Rwandans that they have finally arrived.

"It's a vote of confidence," says Rica Rwigamba, head of tourism and conservation at the Rwanda Development Board. "Tourism here has been growing, the number of visitors has been consistently increasing, and now we're diversifying into new markets like business travel and conferences."

Indeed, last year, more than 660,000 tourists visited Rwanda, up from just 2,000 a decade before and more than Rwanda's previous high point in 1984, when 39,000 tourists arrived per year. It's a good sign for a country that is trying to wean itself off foreign aid, in favor of private investment, primarily in tourism.

That strategy is already paying off: Tourism is now the country's leading source of foreign exchange and Rwanda's economy is one of the fastest-growing in Africa.

First Marriott in sub-Saharan Africa

The move also represents a new direction for Marriott. Once completed, the $55 million, 292-room Marriott Kigali will be the chain's first property in sub-Saharan Africa and one of three slated to open there over the next 18 months. Hotels in Ghana and Benin will follow.

"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."

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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