Burundi had been a sleeping piece of a puzzle in the tourism industry across the East African Community, until one Carmen Nibigira was appointed as Head of the Burundian National Tourism Office. In no time, Burundi was suddenly shaking off years of almost silence as she made her voice heard in East Africa, inviting tour operators and media representatives to showcase the country’s attractions and organize festivals and sporting events at a breathtaking rate.
No sooner, however, had Carmen returned to the United States to complete her Ph.D. studies, ecalm returned and silence once again prevailed as far as communications from Bujumbura’s tourism marketers was concerned.
Things then got progressively worse for Burundi’s tourism and hospitality sector after the power grab which was riddled with factional violence, resulted in a short-lived coup of sorts – some say it was stage managed to give reason for the dictator to remain in power – and the fallout was becoming too obvious.
Previously full buses coming by road via Rwanda or Tanzania into the country suddenly only brought a trickle of visitors amid reports that over a quarter of a million Burundians in turn had left the country seeking refuge amid their neighbors.
Hotel occupancies dropped sharply and repeated violent clashes, some resulting in killing sprees by regime-friendly militias and troops of perceived opposition supporters, then made parts of the capital a no-go zone.
Kenya Airways halted their night-time flight from Nairobi as the safety of their staff and of passengers at these hours could not be guaranteed, and FlyDubai then pulled their services altogether after traffic numbers dropped bottomless. Brussels Airlines also due to low loads, reduced flights to just one per week.
Now hotel owners in Bujumbura have made contact and painted the darkest picture yet. With occupancies already low, it is becoming almost impossible to pay for utilities, their staff, and a huge insurance burden, for those who still can get insurance, considering the massive risks that a hotel may be caught in a cross-fire with resulting damage to the building, equipment, and most worrying, staff and guests potentially getting injured or worse.
The economy – GDP was already down nearly 8 percent last year – continues to shrink, money is scarce, and in particular smaller hotels and guest houses no longer have guests. Suggestions have been made that hundreds of staff have been laid off, although it is hard to verify but entirely believable, given that no hotel can meet overhead expenses without regular cash flow.
Financial institutions which have outstanding loans for hotels and other investments have, according to banking sources not seen any repayments, leaving such loans to go into the bad books as non-performing, and yet the economy does not even allow hotels to be auctioned off as there are no buyers.
The EU and other development partners have withdrawn their goodwill and funding, and even the East African Community finances are under threat as these bodies insist that not a cent of their financial aid must benefit Burundi, leaving programs and projects involving transboundary activities in a lurch.