Photographer and wildlife guide Paul Goldstein speaks out against Rwanda’s decision to double gorilla entry fees, including why tourists and Rwandans will lose out - and why Uganda will gain from it
Hiking up fees for National Parks and Reserves is a common ruse to add a little 'cream' to government war chests in Africa. I have seen rises all over the continent for years and seen little, if any, change on the ground.
The same can be said for India, where the experience with tigers is one of a remarkable species in parks so violated and decayed by years of systematic abuse that it is a surprise there are any left at all.
The paragon of all wildlife countries, Rwanda, this week has sadly sullied its once shiny reputation. It has doubled gorilla entry fees. This is not from (USD)$50 to $100 dollars but $750 to $1,500.
Photographer with gorilla in the wild (Paul Goldstein)
I have sent thousands of people to see gorillas for 25 years and was there myself as recently as last October. I have seen the price increase over the years and have sympathised.
However, this extortionate increase is without precedent, and it appears this burnished example of probity and integrity has now replaced these honourable characteristics with greed, denying most people the chance of visiting ‘their relatives’. It denies locals too. Charging them the full price is also unprecedented.
Supply and demand be damned. This change was made with no advance notice and is little short of robbery. The other offer of a $15,000 ticket to have special escorts and exclusivity with one family is equally bogus, as this is nothing different to what is currently offered and ostensibly invents a higher rate if you book a group of tourists.
Group discounts be damned too. The offer for a discount for pre- or post-conference visitors is also utterly irrelevant.
The Chief Executive Officer of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), Clare Akamanzi defended the rise with the tired old excuse of ‘sustainability’ and described seeing gorillas as a “highly unique experience.” I’d ask Clare: is that the best you can do?
Firstly, it is 'unique' or it is not; you cannot be “highly unique”, despite the altitude of your apes. Secondly, trying to defend this and the other inferior parks you are promoting by talking about sustainability is weak at best. If you increased the percentage you are currently giving to the local area, there would be no need for such larceny.
Mountain gorilla in Uganda (Dreamstime)
Whichever ‘scholar’ made this staggering decision should reconsider. The Virunga mountains also go East and over the border the fee is $600, which drops in low season to $400.
I find it a preposterous irony that in the month that there is finally a direct flight from Gatwick to Kigali, the Rwandan government and their myopic development board choose to promote Uganda. The astute Ugandans have wasted no time in braying their primate credentials, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) announcing that their $600 permit fee will be maintained for a minimum of 12 months.
A spokesperson for the Ugandan Wildlife authority (UWA) said: “Gorillas are one of the world’s most valuable natural resources and their conservation is at the forefront of all of UWA’s decisions. Allowing global travellers the opportunity to fulfil lifelong dreams to see these animals is key to their conservation”.
Unlike Rwanda, Uganda actually have a tourism arm in the UK, who have said: “We don’t want to become elitist and allow only a wealthy and highly select few the opportunity to relive that famous ‘David Attenborough moment’. Having international tourists staying at a variety of grade hotels and lodges means that locally-owned businesses will benefit."
This is sound logic, and no doubt hundreds of primate operators are hastily re-arranging their itineraries to switch countries.
When I spoke to the Rwandan High Commission, I was given this anodyne and frankly ludicrous defence: “It is a unique experience, a different type of adventure and, anyway, people pay a lot to go to Barbados.” Does anyone think that this individual was missing the point?
Gorilla in Rwanda (Dreamstime)
No doubt some Americans and Chinese travellers can and will afford this experience but this eye-watering rise infers adjectives that go against everything I like to believe in this miracle country.
I first saw the gorillas 25 years ago and it left an indelible impression. I still maintain it is one of the best encounters you can have in the world. I adore Rwanda, a shining beacon of forgiveness and perhaps the safest country I have visited anywhere. Each visit has been a joy but I will not be seeing the gorillas there again, not at this price.
I used to share an office with a seasoned veteran who loved boasting with no little spoonful of itinerant one-upmanship that he had first seen the gorillas a very long time ago in Zaire and paid $3 for the privilege. A little later, in 1989, he had paid $50. A fair price is an honourable price, then or now. $1,500 is neither.
It appears the days of paying peanuts to get ‘monkeys’ are long over.
Guide, photographer and presenter Paul Goldstein has raised over $200,000 for endangered Bengal tigers and is a champion of threatened species. See www.paulgoldstein.co.uk for more.
Main image: Gorilla (Paul Goldstein)