The Royal Tour: Selling Rwanda as a success story
t’s just one in a PBS series of American travel journalist Peter Greenberg’s presidentially-guided documentaries, but Rwanda: The Royal Tour has received blockbuster treatment among the chattering classes in the small East African country.
It stars President Paul Kagame as a wry-humoured tourist guide, energetically leading the way to some of the country’s tourist attractions. The duo go gorilla tracking, canopy walking on a stomach-churning hanging bridge, jet-skiing on Lake Kivu, and cycling. Kagame also invites Greenberg to his presidential home for a round of tennis, putting up one of his royal Inyambo cattle with their majestic horns on the game.
In an interview with the president early on in the documentary, Greenberg gently raises the controversies surrounding the president as a strongman overstaying his term limits, but he's hardly Christiane Amanpour. The often harsh treatment of Rwandan opposition politicians and exiled dissidents isn’t mentioned. For one, government critic Diane Rwigara, who had ambitions of contesting Kagame for the presidency last year, has been in detention since September for conspiring to incite an insurrection. Rwandan intelligence agents are also accused of targeting dissidents on foreign soil, which has caused friction with countries that should be significant partners, like South Africa.
However, the glowing response to The Royal Tour reflects many Rwandans’ insatiable appetite for a positive narrative.
The documentary premiered in Chicago and New York in April, with the First Children, Ange and Ivan Cyomoro, in attendance.
A few days later, it was beamed on Rwandan television screens. There was also a free public screening, courtesy of the country’s marketing agency, the Rwandan Development Board (RDB), with popcorn and cold drinks at the Kigali Cultural Village. Diplomats, officials, conference-goers (at the time the Mo Ibrahim Foundation was in town), and some of Kigali’s middle classes and elites packed out the chairs in one of the huge tents.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdallah of Jordan are two of heads of state who previously starred in Greenberg's series; Kagame is the first from this continent.
“To have the president of Rwanda actually do this, the first African president to be on this show, he was just going to speak for himself. I think there won’t be any words, you know, to emphasise or to show how huge this is,” Belise Kariza, RDB tourism officer, said in a clip on the making of the film.
Rwandan cultural entrepreneur and DJ, Eric Kirenga, told the Africa Portal Rwandans are “always super-interested in what the president is doing”, especially when he’s marketing the country.
“He is like a rock star,” he said. “He’s the best salesman and interactor.”
“We always see him in a political set-up and interviews. To allow him to be seen doing normal things, it is very endearing to see the father of the state in that position.”
Gatete Nyiringabo, senior research fellow for the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research and well-known Rwandan political blogger, even compared Kagame with South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela.
“As far as we are concerned, Kagame is our Mandela,” he said.
“Kagame spent years in the bush, just like Mandela. He reconciled people after the genocide [just like Mandela reconciled South Africans after apartheid]. Kagame actually led the army that stopped the genocide. Kagame did the Gacaca (genocide community courts), Mandela did Truth and Reconciliation [Commission].”
Gatete, however, resists the cult of the presidential personality.
The Royal Tour isn’t about Kagame, but about advertising Rwanda's tourism offerings. “The president just brings in the punch. He projects a sense of stability and peace and quiet. If the president can go around town and people are spontaneously cheering him, then it’s safe for tourists too,” he said.
The publicity is better than money could buy, and the RDB would have known that when they reached out to PBS, he said.
“Royal Tour is a commercial. It paints Rwanda in a positive light. It is political without showing it. It’s soft power.
“People might have personal reasons to hate Kagame, but they can’t deny that the gorillas and the lake are beautiful,” he said. “Also, the journalist who did The Royal Tour is highly regarded. The process isn’t rigged, those watching can trust the film.”
Following the devastating civil war and genocide in the early 1990s, Rwanda has committed to rebuild its economy and ramp up its tourism strategies. Gatete said tourism was part of the development the country could use to reduce its dependence on foreign aid.
According to figures published on a US government website aimed at exporters, Rwanda’s services sector, including tourism, represent almost half (47%) of that country’s GDP. In 2016 tourism was the country’s leading foreign exchange earner, according to the National Bank of Rwanda, with total revenues for that year estimated at $390 million.
Almost a decade ago, Rwanda’s tourism sector was identified as a “priority sector” for achieving Rwanda’s development goals set out in its Vision 2020. As part of this strategy, it also resolved to diversify tourism offerings to reduce risk, but also to attract more tourists.
“I don’t think misery sells anymore,” Gatete said. He said although tourists could also come to pay their respects, this isn’t the only context the country should be seen in.
“We want them to come and lounge in our bars and go to the lake. Most documentary filmmakers show Rwanda in terms of genocide, skulls and bones, or portray our politics as controversial. No one wants to hang out on their honeymoon or build a factory in such a context. Yes, it’s part of our history, but now we just want to promote a different image. The only money you can use on misery or controversy is donor money."
(Main image: Flickr/Paul Kagame)
*The last quote in this article was updated for context.