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Social Distancing With Gorillas in Rwanda

By Greg Sullivan

Sep 24, 2020

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Keeping a respectful distance from the gorillas of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

Photo by Jennifer Flowers

Keeping a respectful distance from the gorillas of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

Rwanda reopened its international airport in August, and we touched down not long after, eager to see how responsible tourism can support the gorillas of Volcanoes National Park.

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All of us at AFAR have been very cognizant of the risk assessments—and reassessments—that travelers have been making since March and have tried to be empathetic and responsible in all our coverage. We also aim to lead by example and build consumer confidence as stewards of travel and the industry. Ninety-five percent of our readers have passports. Eighty-four percent still expect to travel internationally in the next 12 months. Based on recent audience surveys, it seems you, too, are being cautious but aspire to travel responsibly, even before a COVID vaccine arrives. 

Lest I be travel shamed, I’ll share here now: I have done a fair amount of domestic travel the past few months—domestic flights to Arizona, Illinois, New York, and Maine, and road trips around my home state of California—to better understand the real-time situation in different states. And I just returned from an amazing trip to Rwanda with Micato Safaris, a great outfitter that made a huge difference in the planning of this far-flung trip. (It would have been overwhelming to deal with the changing rules and logistics of getting to and around Rwanda—canceled flights alone—without their knowledge and care.)

My international flight on Qatar Airways felt very safe and definitely very comfortable in its business class Qsuite. (My colleague and travel partner Jennifer Flowers describes the experience in this article.) Qatar has flown one of the largest international networks through the COVID crisis, repatriating millions of passengers, and now serves more than 90 destinations. It requires not only face masks during its flights but also face shields (provided by the airline) during boarding and, in economy, throughout the flight. It also requires negative COVID tests within 72 hours of boarding if you’re coming from certain high-risk destinations. 

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I recognize that traveling internationally is not for everyone right now, but for those willing to know and understand the rules, and take the risk, it can be very rewarding. I saw mountain gorillas for the first time in a small group of five, went on Big Five game drives, and met with a dozen people across the travel industry—in-person, many-masked interactions with some incredible local changemakers like Yvonne Makolo, CEO of RwandAir; Dr. Gaidi Faraj, faculty dean at African Leadership University; Freddy Mutanguhu, executive director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial; Belise Kariza, chief tourism officer of the Rwanda Development Board; Prosper Uwingali, chief park warden at Volcanoes National Park; Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program senior advisor at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund; Bonita Mutoni, chair of the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association; and fortuitously at the One&Only Gorilla’s Nest, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. I was only there nine days. Zoom would not suffice. 

I came away so impressed with how each individual expressed their love for Rwanda, believed in its direction, and were committed to doing their part to continue to rebuild Rwanda “the right way.” All believed, to a person, in the importance of travel and tourism for helping Rwanda achieve its vision, including supporting the people of Rwanda and conserving its natural resources and wildlife.   

Rwanda also has one of the lowest COVID case and death rates in the world—fewer than 5,000 cases and 27 deaths in 2020—and was able to reopen to domestic and private-aircraft international travel in mid-June. It used this as an opportunity to test what worked well and what didn’t. On August 1, it reopened its international airport and, rather than relying on geographical distinctions of who could come to the country, devised a testing scheme for visitors and employees in the tourism business. 

Photo by Greg Sullivan

I had to submit digitally a negative COVID test performed within 120 hours of my departure from the United States. When I landed in Kigali, I had to go straight to a designated COVID testing hotel—I was at the Kigali Serena Hotel, a large resort in the center of town and about 25 minutes from the airport, where another test was administered, and I was required to stay in my room until negative results came through. If they came back posituve, I’d have to quarantine—a possibility that always looms. Importantly, they’ve put a 24-hour limit on the processing of test results, which often come back sooner based on the batch testing they’re employing.

Rwanda also requires all visitors to get another COVID test before they leave the country. I love this one. It helps them identify how well their system is working and address any issues. But they also feel it is the right thing to do. 

All this went into making me feel very comfortable and responsible in my travels. I also felt like I was supporting the country and its conservation efforts, while also having a very personally enriching experience.

Wearing a mask and social distancing didn’t keep me from still carefully socializing—from meeting inspiring people and having great discussions. We were also extremely careful to protect the wildlife. Before entering Volcanoes National Park, we had to show our recent COVID negative test, disinfect our shoes, and put on park-supplied new surgical masks. The park had decreased the size of parties on treks from eight to six persons, and increased the distance we were to maintain between us and the gorillas to 10 meters (it’s normally seven meters, or about 23 feet). 

Prior to COVID, if a young gorilla approached a visitor, you were to stay put and not touch the gorilla, but gorillas could touch you. Now it was a little more stressful, as we had to make sure not to let any gorillas come close. (There was a bit of stumbling through the rainforest over uneven ground to make sure we kept a respectful distance.) Normally, there are up to 96 people gorilla trekking in a day; there were only seven on the day we hiked in. Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program senior advisor of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund representative, told us that she believed the procedures were reasonable and well balanced. They know that tourism has been and will continue to be critical to saving the mountain gorillas in East Africa. A percentage of the park fees ($1,500 per person) pay for the rangers, support community projects selected by locals, and sustain this safe haven for the gorillas. 

At AFAR, we call this living in the “new now.” We don’t like the term “new normal,” because it isn’t normal, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to live as best we can with it. We are trying to help travelers make the most of this ever-changing present and remain inspired as we look forward to a world where COVID is not front and center of all our considerations. Until then, I’m so happy I made my trip to Rwanda. And I’m grateful that they welcomed me. I will remember it always. 

>>NEXT: What It’s Like to Take an International Flight During COVID

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