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How former Rwandan refugee became a multiple international tourism and conservation award winner

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Greg Bakunzi was born in Kyangwali Refugee Camp in western Uganda where his parents arrived in 1959 after fleeing the genocide that took place in their native country that year and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.

His formative years were characterised by extremely challenging conditions, including having limited access to basics such as healthcare and formal education.

In fact, Mr Bakunzi never went past Primary Seven due to lack of school fees. “Life in the camp was about waking up in the morning and going to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) offices to pick up food for the day. There wasn’t much going on for us. We never saw a future,” he says.

In 1995, a year after the 1994 genocide that left an estimated one million Rwandans dead, Rwanda was declared peaceful and Rwandan refugees were called upon by the new Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) government to go back home, and Bakunzi and his family were among the first to heed that call.

The foray into Rwanda turned out to be the turning point for Mr Bakunzi – a detonator that sent him flying into life.

“When I first arrived in Rwanda, I was fascinated by the fact that people in this country spoke one language, especially considering that I was coming from a place where we spoke about 10 languages,” he says.

Rwanda’s social distinctness, the country’s beautiful landscape, and the unique mountain gorillas that resided in the Virunga massif – a chain of eight volcanic mountains that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo – would eventually stoke his interest in tourism and conservation.

In 1998, Mr Bakunzi made a foray into tourism as a local guide for visitors who were interested in more than just the famous mountain gorillas – visitors who wanted to explore local culture and the country’s natural features.

“When I took one German tourist who was researching community tourism in Rwanda to Lake Burera and he admitted to me that he was satisfied with my services, I realised that I could actually turn this thing into a business venture,” he says.

The German tourist, Michael Grosspietsch, encouraged Bakunzi to start a tour and travel company and also recommended other tourists to seek his services while visiting Rwanda. In the early 2000s, Mr Bakunzi set up his own tour company – which he named Amahoro Tours – and also founded the Ruhengeri Community Ecotourism Association, which aimed to promote responsible tourism.

In its first year of operations, Amahoro Tours led seven trips. There were more than 10 the following year. Things really started to buzz in the subsequent years, and his company has since featured in Rwanda’s Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies.

Today, Mr Bakunzi enjoys national and international acclaim for his work in tourism and conservation. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in promoting responsible ecotourism and sustainable community development in Rwanda.

In 2015, his name was added to the A-Team for Wildlife Wall of Fame in recognition of his work to save endangered animal species, especially the prized mountain gorillas whose population currently number about 1,000 individuals worldwide.

A year later, he became a panelist on the topic “Africa – The Future is Now” at the Tourism Investment and Business Forum for Africa organised by the UN World Tourism Organisation, FITUR (the global meeting point for tourism professionals and the leading trade fare for incoming and outbound markets in Latin America), and Casa Africa.

In 2018, Mr Bakunzi was appointed to serve on the African Tourism Board’s steering committee. In 2022, Nkotsi, his humble village in Musanze district in northern Rwanda, received the Best Tourism Village award from the UN World Tourism Organisation for preserving local culture and traditions, celebrating diversity, providing opportunities to the locals, and safeguarding diversity – thanks to his tourism initiatives.

More recently, at the beginning of March 2023, Mr Bakunzi received an email from New York-based TIME Magazine informing him that Red Rocks Rwanda, a non-profit hostel he established 12 years ago, had been selected as “one of TIME’s 2023 World’s Greatest Places in Musanze, Rwanda.”

“This updated version of our annual travel guide – curated from editor and expert nominations from around the world – will recognise establishments in 50 destinations (including countries, cities, towns and national parks) that are offering visitors an extraordinary experience that unlike any other,” TIME told Mr Bakunzi in the email.

Even though Mr Bakunzi has been recognised internationally several times for his achievements in the tourism and nature conservation, sector, this recognition elated the 50-year-old tour operator-cum-conservationist, nonetheless.

Going forward, Mr Bakunzi hopes that his vision of sustainable community-based tourism becomes a role model for others to follow in his path of promoting sustainable community development around the world.

“These awards and recognitions motivate me to engage in more community-based tourism initiatives that inspire more people not only at home but globally,” he says. “The experiences we offer in Rwanda can be replicated by our visitors when they go back to their home countries.”

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