Praveen Moman, founder of Volcanoes Safaris, is a champion of tourism with a purpose. Moman and his family came from Asia to East Africa in the 1960s and Moman grew up in Uganda.
In the 1970s, his family was forced to leave Africa and move to the UK. He led a career in politics, working for the European Parliament and other heads of state. Moman was always beguiled by Africa, and after retiring from an official career in UK politics, he made his way back to Rwanda and Uganda to start Volcanoes Safaris in 1997 (he named the company after the several volcanoes in the area, two of which are still active). Since then, he has opened up four luxury lodge’s across Africa. It’s here he brings together the best in luxury and conservation tourism to create an unforgettable experience for guests, while simultaneously protecting the ecosystems of the areas. Volcanoes Safaris was the very first international safari company to take people through Rwanda (in 2000) and since then he has single-handedly revived gorilla tourism.
In addition to bringing people to see these endangered gorillas in person, Moman and his team launched a series of intensive conservation projects, including the Kyambura Gorge Eco-Tourism Project (launched in 2009) to safeguard this ecosystem. The project’s main initiatives include: restoring 45 acres of wetland, building a tree nursery and reforestation project, bee keeping, a Kyambura women’s coffee cooperative, a chimpanzee naming ceremony and a dance group, among others. The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT) is a non-profit through which this is all possible, connecting Volcanoes’ Rwanda and Uganda lodges back to the community.
Moman sat down with Elite Traveler to talk about the renaissance of Rwanda, the importance of tourism in this area of the world and what he hopes to accomplish through eco-tourism. volcanoessafaris.com
Tell me about your return to Africa in the late-1990s
Uganda and Rwanda had been stabilizing and opening up in the mid-90’s, and I was changing direction [in my career]. Before I knew it, I started building a lodge on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This area was live with the complications of these three countries. It was a very slow start but eventually we got past that and we became the first company in the world to enter Rwanda and start tourism in very difficult circumstances.
What makes Volcanoes Safaris different than other safari companies?
We’ve been working in the great ape space, three lodges have to do with gorillas, one with chimps, and we remain the only company in the world to do that. We are the ones that have pioneered gorilla tourism in the last 20 years.
We’ve always had a distinct philosophy, and we’re trying to retain this idea of context. Our head of construction is Rwandese man who has been with us 15 years. Yes we have international designers who work with him to ensure that the interior is a high-quality level but the core of the style and the building and the way of working is local. It’s trying to think, what are the local solutions? That remains an important difference. And then our empowerment – I’m not aware of any other company in Africa who has our level of empowerment. All our lodge managers are African and will remain African – and that’s not out of political correctness, we have had the training programs for 20 years to achieve that. For guests, that becomes one of the most charming and interesting things they experience.
And the gorilla experience and immersion in the countries is very straightforward and easy. Because you’re tracking on foot, the connection is greater rather than just doing a vehicle safari. Seeing a gorilla or chimpanzee is especially wonderful because you’re seeing your ancestors.
How has Uganda and Rwanda evolved over the last 20 years?
It was a very big change. Obviously with the genocide in 1994 and then when we opened in 1997, the area had gone through war after war. With all the turmoil created by the genocide, it spun the countries around. Now, Rwanda and Uganda are safe and stable. How can I say that? Because we’ve been working there for 20 years. Both governments work well and take their security seriously. Security is not an issue; on the contrary, you feel like you’re in one of the safest areas in the world.
What is important for guests who want to give back to know when traveling with Volcanoes Safaris?
In each lodge, you should focus not only on your lodge but conservation and community activities around you. [this is a bar we set up] on a funky African street and not only can you come here and have tapas, but you’re supporting kids who are training in hospitality. It is central and symbolic of our philosophy. A property anybody can build, but what is is it trying to do? What is its long-term impact on the planet? That’s what this is about. We don’t suggest a donation – we do not want that. We want to cut that dependency, so we don’t ask for money.
How do you maintain to keep the native people and land sacred to that area?
This has been a long challenge in the creation of national parks and I addressed the issue in my TedX talk last year which had the theme “Save Gorillas: Focus on Communities.” Volcanoes Safaris and Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust have also enabled the Batwa of Gahinga to have their own land to build their own village in 2018. When the park was created in 1992 by the government they were not provided any land or compensation or rights.
Where do you see yourself and Volcanoes Safaris in five years, 10 years?
Continuing to be the leading luxury lodges of the region and building on the conservation and community programs that we are developing around each lodge.
What are some example itineraries that are popular for your guests?
You can combine Virunga Lodge and Mount Gahinga so you can see gorillas on two sides of a mountain, but also see the Batwa Project, climb a volcano and really connect to the Virunga Landscape. Or you do Bwindi Lodge and Kyambura Gorge Lodge. You see the chimps and the wildlife there and then see the gorillas in Bwindi. Those combo itineraries are a week-long each. It’s a much fuller safari than just doing one lodge. It’s worth spending an extra two or three days.
Photo credit: Black Bean