Coronavirus and the resultant nationwide lockdowns have been a harsh reality to which many of us have been forced to adjust. But for those who often provide our travel experiences – in some of the least developed and economically fragile parts of the world – it has taken practically everything.
With borders closed and citizens (rightly) advised to stay home, independent tour guides and small-scale local tour providers are facing a perilous future. Some will batten down the hatches and await the return of visitors in the months to come. But for others, the easing of travel restrictions may come too late.
At battleface, we believe that supporting locally-owned and operated tour providers is a great way of ensuring communities can reap the benefits of global travel.
If you’ve had a positive travel experience through an independent guide or company, consider reaching out to them now and offering support in any way you can.
One such provider is Democratic Republic of Congo-based Kumbukumbu Tours, owned and operated by Obed ‘Temba’ Tuyumvire.
Obed, a former refugee turned activist and entrepreneur, is a great advocate for the stunning landscapes and wildlife found in DRC.
He spoke to battleface travel blog Words+Images about his incredible journey from helping tourists cross the border to running of one DRC’s most successful independent tour companies.
You have a fascinating backstory, from being a refugee to becoming an entrepreneur. How do those experiences affect your approach to guiding tours?
Tour-guiding is a very broad career, so it involves a lot of things, but is mainly about experience. And my life experience is maybe 80 per cent of my knowledge. That means I went to Rwanda, I went to Uganda, I came back to Congo and experienced very bad situations and had to learn and to pass through many challenges to become who I am today.
There is a very big gap between being a refugee and an entrepreneur, so that means passing through the challenges and trying to continue to be resilient. That means I taught myself, I trained myself. So from that I have the full understanding of the region.
It helps me, making me somehow unique, making me be able to respond to every question from a guest.
You started out by helping foreigners navigate bureaucracy at the Rwanda/Congo border. What are some of the difficulties foreigners experience coming into and out of DRC?
Actually, when foreigners arrive, they are getting into the Congo through one of the busiest borders in Africa. It looks a total mess for foreigners who are coming for the first time because no one knows where to go to stamp their passport or to find basic facilities.
So, I was there, just helping people who were just standing there, confused. I started going beyond that when my network started expanding. For example, booking hotels for them. I was volunteering at first but then I finished by charging some fees.
DRC is seen as ‘dangerous’ or very challenging to some travellers, what would you say to convince them it is a potential destination for them?
DRC is listed on the red line of many travel platforms and also by diplomatic platforms because it’s known as a dangerous place because of the wars and the conflicts that have happened. But I can say that this is just a background, a history. Now DRC is changing, it’s really being connected to other travel destinations.
It’s a country which is really opening the border. I know how it’s changing. Now it’s easier to cross into DRC than crossing to many Asian or European countries for a foreigner.
That means you come, you have your passport and your yellow fever vaccination card and you’re allowed to get in with your tourist visa. So, yes, it’s seen as a dangerous country through the media and the diplomatic platforms, but if you come on the ground, it’s totally different. Of course, some places are still dangerous, but when you come, you see differently.
Are parts of DRC still too dangerous for foreign travellers to visit? Which parts?
Yes, the Northeast is still dangerous because of the LRA [Joseph Coney’s Lord’s Resistance Army]. But it’s just five per cent of the country.
DRC is four times bigger than France – the size of the whole of Eastern Europe. It’s a very big country. So 80 per cent of the country is safe now. Yet we have been passing through a leadership crisis, which is now affecting the image of the country. But I think since the election last year, these things are getting really easy and travellers are feeling more comfortable to come to DRC.
I can say one thing, DRC is lacking the infrastructure, so that means it’s not only about security. If you want to connect from Goma to Kinshasa, you need to fly and it’s still expensive. The major cities are not connected. But if you’re a real explorer, you come and you jump on a four-by-four and you just drive through, then it’s safe.
The country has some amazing natural wonders – are there any you’re particularly proud of?
I’m particularly proud of Virunga National Park. It’s the oldest park in Africa, and it’s also maybe the most beautiful. We have savannahs, we have primary forests, we have mountains, we have volcanos, we have rare species of animals.
And I like the way we are also contributing to the conservation to make sure the number of mountain gorillas are growing.
But the country has many places that are not ‘discovered’. It’s a huge country and, like I said, the infrastructure is not there to travel easily from one place to another, but I think with time, this will present a lot of potential for travellers.
Finally, what is one item you’d recommend all visitors to DRC bring with them? Something to help their travels in the country?
Travellers coming to this country obviously need their travel documents and their yellow fever vaccination card. But this country is not developed, so people should mind that and bring the right clothes.
Sunglasses are important as well as rain jackets. It’s a country where experiences are full of wildlife and remote areas. And the people here are quite traditional so visitors should also dress accordingly.