Kigali, Rwanda - The tourism office here is full of wazungu, the East African term for white people. The group of six surrounding the front desk are from Canada, equipped with Lonely Planet guides and seeking gorilla permits.
Charles Tabone, a 21-year-old Queen's University student from Toronto, tells me his mother was nervous when he told her he was going to Rwanda. He admits that his idea of the country was influenced by the media.
"My whole image came from Hotel Rwanda, which was filmed in South Africa!"
That's true for a lot of people, but the Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) in Kigali screens another movie: 1988's Gorillas In The Mist. The endangered mountain gorillas in the Parc National des Volcans are bringing tourists from around the world back to a new Rwanda. Even Sigourney Weaver, who played gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey in the movie, returned in 2005 to visit.
The mountain gorillas have attracted interest and support, helping them fight extinction due to habitat loss, poaching, and disease.
Before the 1994 genocide, gorilla tourism was Rwanda's third-largest source of foreign revenue, after coffee and tea exports.
Since the park reopened in 1999, gorilla tourism has bounced back and is now tied with tea at number two, bringing in $26 million U.S. in 2005. For $375 U.S., visitors get to spend one hour with the mesmerizing mountain gorillas. Those who've seen them say it's worth every penny.
Rosette Chantal Rugamba, director general of ORTPN, explains that tourism is a government initiative that is both a poverty reduction strategy and an image builder.
"It's portraying everything that is good about Rwanda when you're talking about tourism," she says. It offers employment and foreign exchange. "The money trickles down very fast to the local community."
In 2005, Rwanda attracted 25,000 tourists. Rugamba confirms that the gorillas are "the flagship," but adds, "We're working hard to bring out the other beauty in the country."
Rwanda boasts three national parks and a lush landscape of rolling hills, mountains and grassy lowlands. It's called "pays des mille collines," French for "country of a thousand hills." Compared to other developing countries, it's very advanced. Though power and water can be hit-or-miss, Rwanda has paved roads and is safe, clean and tourist-friendly but not yet touristy.
But the country has not forgotten its darkest moments, when the international community ignored its plight.
Tabone and his friends decided to visit Rwanda while travelling in East Africa. After reading books about the 1994 genocide, they wanted to know more, to find out about the people and their stories.
"Every single person has a story. Anybody over 12 was touched by [the genocide]."
The opening of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in April 04 marked the 10th anniversary of the massacre, when the country was divided between Hutu and Tutsi. Close to 1 million Tutsis (and Hutus perceived as sympathizers) were killed in 100 days. The centre is built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried. The memorial attracts locals and students as well as international visitors like Tabone who are interested in learning more about the genocide.
Fighting between the Hutu-led government and Tutsi rebels also threatened the gorillas in the early 1990s. Gorilla tourism came to a halt, and at least 18 of approximately 324 gorillas died in the genocide. And in 1999, gorilla tourists were murdered in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest by Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Now, tourism is on the rise, and Rwanda's endangered gorilla population has increased by 17 per cent, thanks to conservation efforts. Rugamba explains that both tourism and the national parks fall under ORTPN, so "tourism is not exploiting conservation."
Kyle Freeny, 26, a law student at Harvard University, picked Rwanda as her destination for spring break. It was the gorillas that attracted her.
"When I was in first grade, I wanted to be a zookeeper for gorillas," she exclaims with a giggle.
Freeny spent two days gorilla trekking, and booked the visit through a travel agency in Kigali. As she looks at her gorilla trekking certificates issued by ORTPN in Kinigi, she smiles.
"It was spectacular. The best part is that they could watch you. They're so much like people. I don't know how people could kill them."