The next 900-pound gorilla of tourism?
By Stephan Faris, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- Three years ago, when Rwanda launched a tourism campaign, the idea seemed far-fetched. Hotels and restaurants were grungy. Only one carrier flew direct to Rwanda from Europe. And memories of the 1994 genocide - the bloodletting that killed nearly a million Rwandans and made the country synonymous with death by machete - were still fresh.

Skeptics, take note: Last year tourism was up 63%, to $26 million, with more visitors than at any time since the country began keeping statistics in 1974. Admittedly that's a small bonanza, but tourism is now the country's third-largest generator of foreign capital, after tea and coffee.

Rwanda's strategy was unexpected. Rather than go head-to-head with neighboring Kenya and Tanzania with their animal-rich savannahs, the tiny central African country promoted itself as a luxury destination. Using its rare mountain gorillas as a hook, Rwanda targeted tourists spending on average $200 a day. "Our country is very small, and the national assets very fragile," says Rosette Chantal Rugamba, director general of the Rwanda Parks and Tourism Board. "We want to minimize the impact while maximizing the value."

Rwanda now has two top-end hotels, including a five-star Intercontinental. Next year pampered seekers of gorillas will have the choice of two luxury lodges, each charging as much as $500 a person per night. As for the genocide, it has proved to be the ultimate example of publicity never being bad. "We get a lot of people asking if they can stay in the Milles Collines," the establishment featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda, says Joseph Birori of Primate Safaris, the country's leading tour agency.

Yet tourism growth has its limits. While Mauritius has beaches as far as the eye can see, Rwanda has just six domesticated gorilla families. To protect the endangered apes, visits are limited to eight people a day for one hour, or 17,000 visits a year, not nearly enough for the 70,000 tourists officials hope to attract. And while conferences may fill part of the gap, it's unlikely that other attractions such as primate walks, culture tours, and pilgrimages to Dian Fossey's tomb will fill $500 suites.  Top of page