Goma eyes Kenyan market in bid to revive tourism sector
There is a common rib-tickling saying that the Kiswahili language was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo.
While I knew that Kenyans have totally mutilated the language with the sheng language, I was pretty shocked when I heard Congolese speak.
Lingala is a mixture of Kiswahili, English and French. And even though they say that Kiswahili was buried in Congo, I must say that it was a sigh of relief knowing that there was a commonality in some of the words, and they did not pass me by.
Not to mention Lingala music, which sounds so heavenly to our ears. Language truly unifies us and makes us one people.
But Kiswahili is not the only thing that people think is dead. When we hear news about Congo, the images that besets us are those of civil and political war, people fleeing from their homes, armed soldiers everywhere, you name it.
To be honest, when a duty call to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo came knocking recently, I couldn’t imagine that I could find any form of civilisation in the country.
Of course, I had previously seen scenic images of some of the attractions, but I never knew that life is still moving on, particularly in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in eastern Congo.
Four months ago, the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano led to lava spewing down the side of the mountain destroying everything in its path.
The eruption resulted in over 3,000 refugees and over 30 lost lives. And despite the fact that experts say that the town is not off the woods yet, life is going on as usual.
Businesses are open, speeding boda boda are everywhere ferrying people along the narrow roads, children are going to school and on weekends , just like here, you’ll meet plenty of decorated vehicles driving people to weddings and couples having photo shoots.
“People always say don’t go to Congo because it’s unsafe. Have you now seen with your eyes that life is moving on.
We need tourists back in our town again to explore just as they used before,” says our tour guide, Daniel Hanamali during our excursion to Mount Nyirarongo, which he confesses to have climbed 99 times.
In Congolese, Nyirarongo connotes, the mother who lies to her child. “She lies to us that she is asleep only to awake in flames,” Daniel continues.
This resumption of activities has attracted various Kenyan businesses into the region.
For instance, two of Kenya’s biggest commercial banks, Equity and Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), now have operations in DRC.
This has consequently resulted in a demand for travel between the two countries as more professionals and investors come into DRC.
There are also UN offices in the town meaning a lot of movement between officials.
Moreover, the two governments recently signed a four-framework bilateral agreement, which will see a lot of investment, and policy development in several economic sectors including tourism, agriculture, education, energy, infrastructure development among others.
And noticing this movement, and the fact that Goma has been underserved despite dealing with Nairobi even more than the capital Kinshasa, local airline Jambojet has recently launched a direct flight to the region to tap into this market, becoming the first low-cost carrier to fly the route.
With flights on Friday and Mondays costing USD375 (Sh41,325) for a return ticket and with an intent to increase to four times a week as the demand grows, the airline seeks to solve the connectivity crisis between the two countries.
“Air connectivity is key to unlocking a country’s economic potential, in part because it enables the country to attract business investment and human capital.
Low-cost carriers have rapidly grown their share of the global air travel market over the last decades; in 2020, low-cost carriers accounted for 35 per cent of the world’s total seat capacity,” notes Karanja Ndegwa, Jambojet CEO.
By tapping into this market and other destinations in future, the airline is now focusing on growing it’s footprint throughout the continent.
“Goma is an important and untapped tourist destination, with magnificent views of Lake Kivu, one of the most iconic parks in the world — Virunga National Park, just to mention a few.
The country has invested in improving it’s airport infrastructure and handling passenger traffic and this has seen the aviation industry grow steadily, becoming a key enabler to the development of its economy,” Ndegwa continues.
Before the direct flights, the only way to connect to Nairobi was either to take a taxi cross the border to Rwanda and then drive for three hours to Kigali.
Once in Kigali, one would have an option of taking RwandAir or Kenya Airways to Nairobi.
The other option would be to take a two and half hours flight with Ethiopian Airline via Addis Ababa and then spend six hours in Addis before flying to Nairobi.
This made it difficult for business people, people seeking medical attention and also those coming to study in Nairobi to travel, but this will open more opportunities for us and having interlinked businesses between Kenya and Congo.
“Kenya and DRC do not share a border, so that we can do business. The airline has assisted to save time,” says His Excellency Dr George Masafu, Ambassador of Kenya to DRC.
Though tourism in Goma is young and underdeveloped, most players see a huge potential that is yet to be untapped.
For instance, DRC has the second largest rain forest after the Amazon, Congo forest.
It also has the biggest national park, Virunga National Park where the endangered species of the mountain gorillas have made their home.
There is the Nyiragongo volcanic mountains where people can take hikes and even spend the night there or sleep in a hotel.
At the top, one can take incredible pictures of the beautiful caldera lake, or go in search of the greatest ape on earth – Grauer’s gorillas in the south of Kivu at Kahuzi –Biega National Park.
There is also a unique species of animal called the okapis, which has features of a zebra and that of a giraffe in the Kahuzi Biega regions. However, instability and insecurity over the years has left the places untapped.
“The difference is that Kenya’s tourism is developed with the national parks, mountains, deserts and the infrastructure being developed.
If the government in DRC puts its act together, then tourism especially in Goma, the tourism gate of DRC is enormous,” notes James Nzavwala , General Manager Goma Serena.
For the few years he’s lived in Goma, James has noted that there has been pressure and willingness in the tourism sector to turn around the page and advance the potential.
For instance, the Goma Serena hotel, which opened last year has 109 rooms with views of Lake Kivu from every room to ensure that guests have a glimpse of the attraction.
Hilton hotel also eyes to manage hotels in Kinshasa for business people in the region. In Masisi mountains, an investor has built Malaika lodge, a property with 15 rooms with an upcoming spa to attract tourists with the beautiful views of the mountains.
Tapping into the tourism market, especially in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to reduced tourists from the international market, James adds that Serena has packages for Kenyans travelling to Congo.
“We also need to open up the market and governments need to stop restricting airlines from doing business. Leave it to competition as that will ensure that the customer gets the best service,” he adds.
The government too hasn’t developed proper policies to allow or encourage proper investment and development.
“There are incidences of insecurity where rebel groups interested in making money from the national parks, such as Virunga attack game rangers conserving the forest.
However, the government is addressing the issue to guarantee safety,” says James.