By Moses K. Gahigi
Popular American TV host Ellen DeGeneres’s visit to Rwanda could boost Kigalis’s efforts to market the country as a high-end tourism destination, as well as its gorilla conservation agenda.
The comedienne arrived in the country on May 27 alongside her partner Portia DeRossi, for a holiday and to oversee the initial stages of the construction of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
The couple met President Paul Kagame in Kigali and also took pictures with chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board Clare Akamanzi, holding the “Visit Rwanda” campaign placard.
For Kigali, associating with a global brand as big as DeGeneres, who has 78 million followers on Twitter, is likely to give the country more visibility in its marketing efforts.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show has won a total of 59 Daytime Emmy Awards, and boasts 3.9 million viewers per episode, making it one of the most viewed in that category.
It was on this show during DeGeneres’s 60th birthday in January that partner DeRossi made a surprise appearance, handing her a “special gift” — a trip to Rwanda to construct the campus.
The campus is dedicated to the late Dian Fossey, who DeGeneres regards as a personal hero, from years of following her gorilla conservation efforts in Rwanda.
Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist who studied gorillas in Rwanda and the wider Virunga region from 1966 until her death in 1985 at the age of 53, when she was murdered in her cabin.
DeGeneres said it was a dream of hers while growing up to live in Africa and help save gorillas like Fossey did.
According to information from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the campus, which will be located in Musanze, in Northern Province, is expected to cost up to $10 million, and is planned for completion by May 2020.
Actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher recently made a $4 million donation to the project while on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, on behalf of Ripple, a crypto-tech company.
The campus’ design will include laboratories, classrooms, meeting space, an interactive exhibition space focusing on Fossey’s work and housing for visiting researchers and students.
The project has already come up with designer shoes with a gorilla emblem and the words, “Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund.”
The president and chief executive of the Fund, Tara Stoinski, said that the campus will enhance its collaboration with local universities and train young Rwandan biologists in supporting RDB’s conservation efforts.
Last year, Rwanda doubled gorilla permit fees from $750 to $1,500, with the government saying it is positioning itself as a high-end tourism destination while stepping up conservation efforts.
As part of its marketing campaign, Rwanda recently signed a three-year, £30 million ($40 million) shirtsleeve deal with Arsenal, where the “Visit Rwanda” logo will be emblazoned on all team sleeves to market the destination for the next three years.
In April this year, the country also benefited from the Rwanda edition of The Royal Tour television travel series which was released on Public Broadcasting Service in the US, with screenings in Chicago and New York, and later in Kigali.
The show, hosted by the award-winning American investigative reporter and producer Peter Greenberg, features heads of state giving viewers a personal tour of their country.
On their Rwanda tour, DeGeneres and DeRossi also paid tribute to genocide victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the TV host laid a wreath on the graves.
In the visitors book, she wrote: “Heartbreaking. Important.” DeRossi wrote, “One of the most important and memorable experiences of my life.”