During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, a network of giant caves located a 90-minute drive northwest of the capital Kigali was used to shelter many members of the victimized Tutsi community. Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, those caves are emerging as symbols of a new, welcoming Rwanda.
The Musanze caves, 32 bat-infested caverns that visitors have compared to the secret underground chamber where Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, may sound intimidating. But the two kilometer–long caves at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park — with five volcanoes and mountain gorillas — are slowly starting to draw an increasing number of tourists to a country still seared in the minds of many for a massacre that claimed at least 500,000 lives.
In 2013, the Rwanda Development Board, the agency responsible for attracting investments to the country, and the nation’s military unveiled a restored version of the caves, introducing tourist walkways, trails and stairs to the dark interior, coupled with paved floors. Open to tourists ever since, the caves — once believed to have been home to a king — have seen a steady growth in footfall over the past five years. The estimated 500 tourists who visited the caves in 2017 are nothing compared to the numbers enjoyed by other global destinations. But for a country that for years conjured images of fleeing refugees, the caves represent an important investment in an aspirational future where Rwanda can become a welcoming host.
Already, the steady increase in tourism to the caves is boosting the economy of the Musanze district, spawning a rise in the number of hotels being constructed in the area and opening up opportunities for local craft shops to sell their wares. And while local tourists are few, most foreign tourists visit the caves with local guides and drivers, giving rise to a parallel hospitality industry catering to these relatively lower-earning Rwandans.
“(All) this has helped us to grow our business, recruit more workers and improve the welfare of our families,” says Uwanyagasani Felix, manager of Karinsimbi New Services guest house, which caters principally to budget travellers, drivers and guides, charging between $15 and $30 a night.
Located just a few kilometres from Musanze town — the district capital also known as Ruhengeri — the caves’ proximity to the national park helps draw in tourists who can go looking for gorillas and then trek through the caves, all in a day. The recently developed Musanze Caves Hotel, located in the rear end of one of the caves, is a hub for tourists to sit and relax at the end of their walk through the underbelly of the region’s volcanic mountains. Business at this hotel is booming, and workers happily complain about how they are increasingly finding themselves overwhelmed with the volumes they now need to cater to. Most tourists at the hotel are foreigners, and tourists from outside East Africa are also the principal revenue source for the caves. The entry fee for the caves is $5 for an East African and $50 for those not from the East African Community — a grouping of six nations including Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda, apart from Rwanda.
A South African tourist describes the visit as “quite perfect” and “extremely well-arranged” on TripAdvisor, encouraging fellow travellers to watch the horror movie Caves before going. “It could add a little spice to the trip.”
But the hotels are only one part of the economy that’s gaining. Many locals have found work in constructing these hotels, others in staffing them. The hotels are also a ready market for locally grown agricultural produce — potatoes and cabbage — allowing farmers to earn more than they could before when they had to travel long distances to find urban buyers. Because the caves are part of Rwanda’s efforts at renewing its image and drawing in foreign travelers and investors, the government has also built roads and other infrastructure here that is lacking in many parts of the country. This, in turn, helps locals transport goods to markets.
And then there are local artisans. Umohoza Aaliyah, who attends to customers at the Inshuti Arts and Culture Center, one of the many shops selling local paintings and handicrafts, says business can be seasonal. But each painting costs around $150, and selling even one a day on average brings a lot of money in a country where the per capita income is $2 a day. She receives tourists from the U.S. and Europe. To encourage local crafts, the government has also set up a showroom in nearby Kinigi.
But there’s more at stake than just economics. Most locals continue to treat the caves as a part of their modern history because of their role in sheltering those fleeing violence in 1994. Whether the caves succeed or fail as a tourist destination could influence how fast Rwanda overcomes that painful legacy.