Burundi, which describes itself as “The Heart of Africa”, is generally bypassed by travellers to the region, with its more famous neighbours — Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda — taking the lion’s share of East Africa’s tourism pie.
Bedevilled by unending political and civil unrest since the country gained independence from its Belgian colonial masters in the early 1960s, Burundi’s tourism industry has never really taken off as most international travellers perceive it as unsafe.
While neighbours Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have each been attracting over one million international visitors and more than $1 billion in revenue from tourism per year (before Covid-19), Burundi attracts less than 300,000 annual visitors.
According to statistics from the Burundi National Tourism Office, Burundi’s best year in tourism was 2018, when the country recorded 299,331 foreign visitors and $16 million in tourism revenue.
But 2021 could herald a new era as the country’s new government looks determined to pull out all the stops to promote its attractions to the world.
For starters, even as the global aviation sector is currently grappling with Covid-19 blues, the government recently announced the resumption of Air Burundi (to be renamed Burundi Airlines), the national carrier that is set to take to the skies again later this year. Air Burundi last operated an aircraft in 2009.
“As part of the revival of air transport, the government of Burundi has undertaken to mobilise the necessary funds and take other accompanying measures aimed at revamping Air Burundi,” a government statement released on December 25, 2020, reads in part.
There are currently only five airlines flying to Burundi — Brussels Airlines, RwandAir, Tanzania Airlines, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines — all operating a total of just 11 flights per week, according to Joseph Nkurunziza, manager of state-owned ground-handler Société Burundaise de Gestion des Entrepôts et d’Assistance des Avions en Escale.
So, for most Burundian tourism industry players, the revamping of the country’s national carrier is seen as a big boon to the nascent tourism industry as this will increase travel frequency.
“The airline will bridge some travel gaps and make the country more accessible by air as more flights will be added to the existing ones,” said Audace Ndabahabwe, CEO of Gisabo Tours, a travel company in Bujumbura.
Why visit Burundi?
Burundi’s tourist attractions may not be as diverse and famous as those found in its East African neighbours, but the country boasts unique culture and landscapes that include undulating hills, fresh water lakes and magnificent rainforests.
Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest and second-deepest lake that straddles Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has for long been one of the main motivators for visiting Burundi due to its beaches where holidaymakers enjoy the gentle waves and soft white sand.
Then there is Kibira National Park, the country’s most attractive nature reserve that is contiguous with Rwanda’s famous Nyungwe National Park.
Kibira plays host to some 98 mammal species, including primates such chimpanzees as well as red-tailed monkeys, baboons and black and white colobus monkeys.
The magnificent rainforest is also a birder’s paradise where over 200 bird species have been recorded.
Culture enthusiasts can swing by the Gishora Sacred Drum Site, which was founded in the late 19th Century and is located on the outskirts of the capital Gitega, about 120 kilometres from Bujumbura, Burundi’s former chief city.
Housing the traditional Burundian royal palace and sacred drums, the Gishora Sacred Drum Site is an important cultural site that features on the tentative list of the Unesco World Heritage Sites.
More hotels, marketing campaigns
As Burundi looks forward to welcoming more visitors, there has been a growth of accommodation facilities across the country in the past few years, according to Vénant Ngendabanka, director general of Burundi National Tourism Office, the country’s regulator.
“As of today,” Ngendabanka said, “we have a total of 595 hotels across the country — 51 of which have star ratings — compared with only 87 in 2010.”
He added that the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism will soon launch marketing promotions both locally and internationally. “We shall start with campaigns that encourage locals to explore their country, and later on launch digital marketing campaigns targeting travellers from the European Union,” he said.
Today, most of Burundi’s less than 300,000-visitors-a-year are from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania who throng Bujumbura mainly on weekends in search of the beach experience.
Mending diplomatic relations
Until 2015, when Bujumbura and Kigali fell out following a foiled coup d’état against former President Pierre Nkurunziza, Rwanda had been one of the biggest source markets for Burundi’s tourism as they took short holidays to Bujumbura. But the dispute that ensued and culminated in the indefinite shutdown of the Rwanda-Burundi border keeping Rwandan tourists away and leaving Burundi’s already battered tourism sector in tatters.
Now as the country seeks to create a sustainable tourism industry, analysts say that Burundi may have to consider mending fences with Rwanda so as to get the tourists back.
The Burundian government hopes to sway more foreign visitors following “improved security in the country” and the recently mended diplomatic relations with the International Francophonie Organisation, an establishment comprising 88 French-speaking countries and of which former Rwandan Foreign Affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo is Secretary General.
On December 4, 2020, the United Nations Security Council announced that it had removed Burundi from its agenda, citing “improved security in the country”. A few days later, the country was readmitted into the International Francophonie Organisation after a nearly five-year suspension that resulted from the country’s 2015 post-election violence that claimed close to 1,000 lives.
“The commitment by Western countries to co-operate with our government again and the United Nations Security Council’s removal of Burundi from the list of countries with fragile security will definitely make 2021 and the coming years different,” said Ndabahabwe. “Now we expect many foreign tourists to stream the Heart of Africa, going forward.”