Virunga National Park’s Reopening Calls for More Sustainable Tourism in Africa

Westend61/Getty Images

For decades (if not centuries), visitors to Africa were confronted with a Hobson’s choice: partake in a system that compromised local economies and natural environments, or … well, don’t travel to Africa.

Today, the effort to build a more sustainable African tourism model remains a tug-of-war involving political strife and short-term capitalistic interests. Last year, one of the continent’s most prominent wildlife preserves, Virunga National Park, was closed due to a spate of violence that impacted both human life and the lives of the region’s endangered mountain gorilla population.

This year, however, Virunga’s scheduled reopening has rejuvenated worldwide interest in visiting this incomparably rich region.

virunga national park congo africa reopens sustainable travel gorilla feeding getty images
WLDavies/Getty Images

Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga is the oldest and most biologically diverse protected wildlife preserve in Africa. Created to protect many of Africa’s most unique species, the park spans almost 200 miles along the Albertine Rift, the geological split between Africa’s north and south, and is surrounded by the snowcapped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains. Within the park, West African rainforests meet East African savannah, resulting in an ecosystem of unparalleled diversity. Volcanic mountains, crater lakes, woodlands, wetlands, and open grasslands — just about everything that makes Africa beautiful can be found in Virunga National Park.

Given the opportunity it presents for observing the habits and interaction of so many species, scientists flock to the park in droves for research opportunities. For tourists, however, the park’s principal attraction is the endangered mountain gorilla. Unlike more highly trafficked gorilla habitats, Virunga’s remote location has preserved its “hidden gem” status. While accessing the park requires a multi-stage journey (including a one- to two-hour drive over a dirt road), the effort is rewarded by your arrival in a lush paradise where birds sing in trees that grow tall in mineral-rich soil and a temperate climate is washed with warm breezes by day and cool mists at nightfall.

Bukima Tented Camp
Bukima Tented Camp Bukima Tented Camp

The park offers a wide range of accommodations, from the Bukima Tented Camp (luxury safari tents set within the gorilla habitat) to the Mikeno Lodge (a sprawling bungalow complex built from lava stone, mahogany and thatch roofs) to the Mount Nyiragongo Summit Shelters (spartan huts perched on the crater rim of an active volcano).

Virunga National Park also provides a wide variety of options for exploring its wonders; in addition to game-viewing drives through the grasslands, there are mountain hikes, forest walks, and boat cruises on the lakes and rivers that surround the park. While mountain gorillas are the prized viewing opportunity, they are far from the only wildlife attraction in Virunga National Park. As of 2012, at least 218 different mammal species were found within the park’s confines, with even more birds, reptiles, and amphibians within view. Elephants, lions, hippopotamus, crocodiles, and aardvarks are just a few of the species that can be seen there. And along with gorillas, the primate roster includes baboons, colobus, and several species of monkey. Visitors can even join a team of zoological volunteers for a chimpanzee habituation session, which helps acclimate them to the presence of humans so that their habits can be studied for the purpose of conservation. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that lets you interact (at a distance) with these remarkable animals, observing their daily life at close range.

Virunga Park Congo
Mount Nyiragongo, Virunga National Park Virunga Park Congo

For a departure from the wildlife viewing experience, intrepid visitors can opt for a hike up the side of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano featuring a lava lake bubbling under the pressure of year-round eruptions. Hiking to the summit of Nyiragongo offers a rare opportunity to observe boiling lava as it gushes from the earth’s crust. There are also opportunities to be a guest of the Twa, an indigenous community of hunter-gatherers who have lived in the region for centuries and now invite visitors to experience their traditional way of life. Guests of the village can listen to stories, make art, participate in music and games, or take walks through the forest with a local guide.

Most importantly, a new effort called the Virunga Alliance will work to ensure that the park’s wealth of resources benefit more than just the tourist population. By improving local infrastructure, social services, and economic opportunities, the Virunga Alliance aims to provide long-term sustainable economic growth that will protect against violence by empowering the surrounding community.


This Luxury Sedona Vacation Rental is Like a Personal Resort For Two

Sedona is one of those magical places that most people from around the world fantasize of visiting. The stunning red rocks formations, the timeless canyons with rivers gushing through them, and the spiritual energy of the vortexes that…

The Best Travel and Adventure Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

If you're reading this, you're staring at a screen. Wouldn't you rather be exploring a different part of the world than the Internet?

These Boutique Hotels Proudly Pay Homage to Their Strip Club Roots

Former gentleman's clubs turned luxury accommodations: where vintage sleaze meets high-brow, designer travel.

Stay Where the Stars of Game of Thrones Stayed with this Sweet Discount Code

Game of Thrones was filmed in some truly spectacular locations — and you can enjoy a discount at some of the best hotels in these cities.

Finland’s Rent a Finn Program Aims to Teach Visitors How to Be Happy

Find your happy place through relaxing Finnish saunas and wild berry foraging via this unique travel contest.

Class Up Your Dopp Kit with the New William Roam Steam Travel Set

Shampoo, conditioner, soap, mending kit, and more — the Steam Travel kit has all your travel grooming needs covered.

How to Spend 36 Hours in Buenos Aires, Argentina

The next time you find yourself in Buenos Aires and only have hours to spend, here’s a 36-hour, must-see and -do guide to help inspire your travels.

Going Beyond City Limits: A Beginner’s Guide to Austin, Texas

If you've been considering a vacation to Austin and need a little more convincing, then this episode of The Manual podcast is for you.

Can You Fly with Legally Bought Weed and CBD in the United States?

It's not as complicated as you think. It's actually much worse.

8 Insanely Luxurious Tent Rentals You’ll Want to Book Instantly

Canvas mini-mansion, geodesic domes, and safari tents with personal chefs.

London Calling: JetBlue Announces New Transatlantic Flights in 2021

The good ol' days of dirt-cheap international airfare could be coming back.
Food & Drink

This $273,000 Louis Vuitton Trunk Doubles as a Bar Cart for Your Hennessy Collection

Because good liquor is the only thing separating us from the animals.
Food & Drink

Flying with Beer: How to Pack Brews and Wine in Your Luggage

Here are a few easy and effective ways to keep your booze safe in your checked luggage using shoes, clothes, and bubble wrap.

Why You Should Expect to Pay a Lot More for Air Travel this Summer

Domestic and international airfare is about to get expensive, possibly very expensive. Here’s why.