Rwanda Tour Association President on His Favorite Spots and Why Hospitality Schools Need to Step It Up
If you’re looking to start a tour company in Rwanda, there’s one person you definitely want to know: Joseph Birori. As the president of the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association (RTTA), Birori knows the ins and outs of the industry and just about everyone in it.
He’s spent more than a decade in the sector, watching it grow and change. As the founder and managing director of his own tour company, Primate Safaris, he has firsthand knowledge of the challenges and rewards of the industry.
Those years of experience and insight make Birori the logical choice to head the RTTA, which boasts 48 tour operators, ranging from Amahoro Tours to Volcanoes Safaris. AkilahNet sat down with Birori to find out how he got his start and his predictions for the industry’s future.
How has the industry changed from when you started 11 years ago?
When we started, the industry was dead. Parks were closed, and tourists were scarce due to security reasons. But now, everything has changed. Most importantly, security, which plays a major role in tourism, is now abundant.
What made you decide to pursue a career in tourism? At what point did you decide to go into business for yourself?
I’ve always had this profound love of travel, interaction, and adventure.
Long ago, in 1978, I went to Utali College, which is a tourism school in Kenya, and after graduation I worked for 16 years in a tour company.
I am not an academic person. Even from a young age, I have always been a business-driven person. When I came back in the country, I realized there was this huge gap in tourism, and I felt a sense of duty towards my country. And since I had experience in the field, it felt like it could only be me to fill that gap. That’s when I decided to start Primate Safaris.
What do you like most about your job?
A happy client is my joy. When tourists come into the country, we give them a briefing about what to expect, and once they finish their sojourn, we hold a debriefing. My happiness is when a tourist confirms what we told him in the briefing.
“When I came back in the country, I realized there was this huge gap in tourism, and I felt a sense of duty towards my country. And since I had experience in the field, it felt like it could only be me to fill that gap.”
What’s your favorite tourism spot in Rwanda?
To be honest, Rwanda is very diverse and its beauty is astonishing. Even though gorillas are a five-star attraction, I also like the serenity of Karongi (Kibuye).
What are the challenges you faced when you started? How did you overcome them?
It was really hard to start a company in an industry that was being rebuilt from scratch. But the main challenge was to recruit the best employees. You see, in tourism, like most other businesses, the employees are the backbone of the industry. We have to be meticulous about our choices, but also we have in-house trainings for new recruits.
What do you look for when recruiting?
I myself get involved in interviews and I look for character. It takes no more than 10 minutes to decide if a person was made for this job.
Where do you see the biggest demand in the tourism and hospitality industry? How can people position themselves in these areas?
That would be hotels. But the challenge is to get the right people because the right people are not on the market. Many college graduates lack all the skils needed for this demanding sector. Schools have a big role to play regarding this issue; they will have to produce apt students.
What are some overlooked opportunities in tourism and hospitality that job seekers should check out?
Most job seekers don’t have industrial attachments, and this leads to less exposure. Even at school, half of the learning should be industrial, which is not the case so far. Again, a waitress or a housekeeper should be professional on the point of making it a career.
How do you see the progress of the hospitality industry?
It is a growing industry, but with this fast growth, comes the challenge of professionalism. Again, in the long run, higher learning institutions will have to play a bigger role in producing the professionals needed.
What’s something that people don’t know about the hospitality industry as career path?
Awareness. People don’t realize that this is a real career. They only hear that tourism is growing, but still it is not considered a career choice. This is a problem at the industry’s junior level. Yes, it doesn’t pay much, but you can still make money with tips if you work professionally.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own company as you did?
First acquire knowledge, be passionate about it, and make sure it is what you want. There are no two ways here. But also innovate; don’t do what others have already done. Bring something new to the table.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.