Congo seeks to draw tourists to troubled, resource-rich east

Rich in minerals but troubled by unrest for two decades, Congo’s east is an unlikely holiday destination, but agents in the region are promoting it’s unique rainforests and endangered species of wildlife as a must see for tourists.

CHIVANGA, SOUTH KIVU PROVINCE, DRC (REUTERS) – This is Kahuzi-Biega national park in Southern Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to one of the most endangered species on earth – the lowland gorillas.

The park is one of their main natural habitats and straddles the Albertine Rift and the Congo Basin forests.

The forests of the Congo represent half of the total area of tropical rainforest in Africa, providing shelter for great apes, such as the mountain gorilla and the bonobo, as well as the okapi and elephant, among other mammals and countless species of birds and reptiles.

But Congo’s eastern region has been plagued by recurring conflict and Kahuzi-Biega national park has felt the effects.

Gorillas are targeted by poachers and warring sides, and many have been forced to flee the park.

Tourist numbers dwindled as a result as a result of the unrest.

With relative peace returning to the area following the defeat of the M23 rebels in 2013, Congo’s government with support from Germany, recently launched a campaign to revive tourism in the region, with gorilla viewing and trekking through the lush park as the main selling point.

“From the beginning of this month up until today, we have had over 42 tourists, while two years ago, there were zero tourists. This shows real development, a real promotion for tourism,” said Kahuzi park director, Radar Nshuli.

Nshuli said that in the last three months, more than 6000 tourists have visited the park, compared to 200 tourists that visited in 2014.

Government officials say this is part of an initiative to turn gorilla viewing tourism into a leading source of foreign exchange.

According to official figures, the park brought in around 10 million US dollars in revenue last year.

The tourist activity is also a big boost for the region’s economy, where millions of people struggle to provide for their families.

“The park generates revenue that will go towards improving our country, and which will also benefits the people, especially the local population. For me, working here also helps me pay school fees for my children. It also contributes to the economy of the country, and helps in the running of the park,” said Bisimwa Alimasi.

Visitors who come here are also a vital marketing tool – they are spreading the message back home and more people from around the world are showing a willingness to visit the region.

“We are going to sensitise people on the importance of conservation, and protecting the gorillas if they are killed, then there will be nothing left. It’s important for this region and for it’s population,” said a Belgian tourist, Jean Michel du Bois.

Gorilla viewing at Kahuzi is however, out of reach for many Congolese; entry for residents costs 200 US dollars, with foreigners paying double that amount.

For those who can afford it, a trek through the park is a reminder of the rich heritage and natural resources that Congo holds.

“Congolese pay 200 USD and foreigners each pay 400 USD. That is why we are calling on our Congolese brothers to come and visit and see what we have in our beautiful country and the wonderful work that conservationists have been doing. Another thing I would like to mention is that we have a beautiful country, and that also creates enemies. We need to unite and preserve our rich culture and wealth, so that our children can also benefit from it, it’s a gift from nature,” said tourist, Nicolle Ashuwa.

According to official figures, in 2013, there were a total of nine gorilla families, some with up to 37 members, living in the park.

But authorities warn that this period of relative peace cannot be taken for granted and stressed on the need to champion several economic development projects.