An erupting volcano in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is turning the war-torn African country into an unlikely tourist destination. Tourists have been visiting the Virunga National Park on overnight treks and in increasing numbers to witness the latest lava eruptions, spewing red hot lava 300 meters in the air from the volcano, which have been flowing since November 6.
Mount Nyamulagira is considered to be the most active volcano in the area and for $300 each, around 60 to 70 volcano fans have been traveling an hour from the eastern city of Goma to the start of the trek at the Virunga National Park.
With the aid of the European Union, Virunga National Park has been a driver in boosting tourism to eastern Congo over the past few years. Tourism officials predict that visitor numbers at Virunga National Park will rise to nearly 4,000 this year, up from 1,800 in 2010, while Africa’s oldest national park is expected to raise over $1 million in revenue for the first time in its history, according to a report in the International Business Times.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to eight national parks, five of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as being home to many endangered species, making it ripe territory for eco-tourism.
The impoverished central African country also made its debut at the World Travel Market in London in September this year, signaling to the world that it means business when it comes to boosting tourism revenue. In its efforts to promote tourism, the DRC government, in conjunction with the Institut Congo pour la Conservation de la Nature (Congolese Wildlife Authority), has recently launched a tourism visa that can be obtained online through Virunga’s website for $50.
DRC borders Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda at the junction of the Rift Valley Lakes region, but despite the country’s more varied biodiversity, Uganda and Rwanda generate more revenue from the gorilla tourism trade, because of the instability in the area according to analysts EuroMonitor.
Many governments currently warn their citizens against traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo due to extreme security risks as a result of continued military activity. However, Go Congo, a tourist operator in the area, describes the DRC as a place of adventure.
Go Congo is second to none when it comes to arranging trips in country. The Kinshasa-based operation offers a selection of tailored trips as well as services for individual travellers such as hotel reservations, transfers and guides. Another option is the British-based Undiscovered Destinations.
A one-time stopover for overlanders to and from Rwanda, Goma is a base camp for UN aid agencies trying to deal with the dual catastrophes of the 2002 Mt Nyiragongo volcanic eruption and the ongoing Rwandan refugee crisis. The one reason to visit Goma is as a transit town on the way to Parc National Des Virungas, home of the famous mountain gorillas and the world’s second-oldest national park. You should check up-to-date travel warnings before planning your trip.
- The local currency is the Congolese franc (CDF); it cannot be converted and cannot be taken out of the country. With individual note denominations nearly worthless it is often easier to use US dollars, though you should be careful not to use old dollar bills or small denominations (anything below a US$20 note). Travelers checks and credit cards are rarely accepted here; credit cards are only accepted in one or two upmarket hotels in Kinshasa. Your best bet is to travel with a carefully concealed money belt containing US dollars. You can change money around the port, but it’s better to find a reliable contact (ask around where you are staying).
- Malaria remains rife throughout DRC. Check with your GP before leaving home and take all the necessary precautions.