They Come To See Animals, They Leave Thinking About African Life

(We thought our audience could find it interesting, so we translated the article by Aljaž Vrabec published on 30 November 2022 in Slovenia’s Delo newspaper)

Nature preservation, respectful treatment of local people and tourism do not always go hand in hand. Thankfully, there do exist travellers and tour providers who care. One of them is Gorilla Highlands, an enterprise from the heart of Africa, led by a Slovenian, Miha Logar, who has lived and worked in the area for 22 years.

Gorilla Highlands, operating in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo, was the global winner of the “Contributing to Cultural Heritage” responsible tourism category at the recent World Travel Market in London. The company was rewarded for their partnership with indigenous Pygmy communities, for the regional cooking competition they organise, and for setting up village homestays and remote hiking routes.

Long-Standing Partnership with Pygmies

“We didn’t start with the desire to be a tourism business,” explains Logar, “but to develop a suitable ‘export industry’ for the transboundary Gorilla Highlands region. As we chose tourism, it would have been terribly irresponsible if this was a mass, dirty or superficial version of the travel business.” He is particularly pleased that there are now many young Rwandans and Ugandans in the leadership of Gorilla Highlands.

“We primarily won because of our decades-long cooperation with Batwa ‘Pygmy’ groups. We treat them as our real partners not merely ‘service providers’ as is sadly too common. International judges also emphasised our historical care for the Bakiga Museum,” explained Logar, “but that cultural highlight was taken away by the pandemic and we will have to look for a new solution.”

While many tourists visit Africa because of natural attractions and to see animals, Gorilla Highlands wants to connect their guests with local people. Hosted by rural families, visitors spend their nights, eat traditional food, debate around the campfire and get to know authentic African life.

The company’s target group has evolved. “Initially, we were focused on treks and cultural experiences but lately we run many general tours of Rwanda and Uganda as well. In addition to the more common small groups of travellers we have managed to attract the attention of families and even schools; for example, in 2023 we are hoping to take Nigerian high school students around Rwanda.” This Slovenian from Africa is happiest when tourists come to see gorillas but go home thinking about the people they have shared time with.

Miha Logar; photo by Voranc Vogel (Delo)

A Reward That Proves Something

Tourists may be exporting photos and impressions into the wider world but another kind of export — of natural resources — is Africa’s reality too. For example, oil has been discovered close to the boundary of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park and now tankers ply its freshly paved roads, crossing the River Nile on a brand new concrete bridge. Opinions of environmental activists are generally disregarded.

“When we discuss nature conservation, we simply cannot ignore the human factor — if poor people surrounding national parks do not get an opportunity to prosper, they will of course illegally enter conservation areas, cut forests or become poachers. At the same time, the variety of cultures is one of Africa’s top treasures and it is only right that welcoming locals are considered in the travel package,” says Logar.

He has more to say about the topic in a recent interview in our Sobotna priloga supplement: “Africans have a legitimate right to be angry at the West for preaching about nature conservation. My Masters Degree coursemate once complained that Europeans first destroyed their own environment to build factories and make profits only to now tell Africans not to do the same, for the sake of the planet. How to respond to this valid point? My humble opinion is that Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo would be best served creating wealth based on their pristine nature. However, if their leaders think the way to a better life leads through environmental destruction, I am not going to argue with them.”

The situation motivates Gorilla Highlands to promote responsible tourism that does not harm the natural environment. “Just like ecotourism the term responsible tourism is slowly becoming well-known enough to serve as an attractive label you can attach to anything to make your business sound better. It’s therefore handy that we got a respected prize that proves our seriousness,” notes Logar proudly. “Moreover, the prize will assist us because we publish a podcast, regular social media posts and other media products devoted to responsible tourism in Africa and in general. Now we can talk about these things with some authority.”

featured photo by Marcus Westberg