Recent Media Attention Contributes to Influx of Prospective Visitors to the National Park
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.— In November, 2014, Netflix released a film titled Virunga, which successfully generated a major response from viewers around the globe. Closely aligning with operators in the tourism industry, the film brought attention to issues that have existed within the National Park for several years. Only a handful of tour operators have observed firsthand the current conditions in Virunga, one being Jessica Pociask, owner of WANT Expeditions – the world leader in highly personalized, conservation-oriented small group travel.
The popular documentary Virunga takes place in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo and depicts the 2012 struggle between rangers who have sworn to protect Virunga National park and its population of critically endangered Mountain Gorillas from invasive M23 rebel forces and SOCO International plc – an oil and gas exploration and production company. In the movie, viewers learn that SOCO has been granted access by the president of DRC to explore for hydrocarbons in the northeastern position of the park, despite Virunga’s protection from drilling under international law.
Although the DRC is one of the richest countries on Earth in terms of natural resources, decades of civil war and conflict over tribal differences and exploitation of natural resources have left the country in a constant state of chaos. As a result, Congo has earned a reputation for being one of the most dangerous and unstable countries on Earth. With over 20,000 troops on the ground, the largest current UN operation in the world is taking place in Goma, Congo, the largest city in proximity to Virunga National Park.
It’s been roughly one year since Sultani Makenga, commander of M23, surrendered himself and hundreds of troops in Uganda, ending their insurgency in Congo, and for the first time, the region is relatively at peace. Virunga, Africa’s oldest National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a variety of unique plants and animals, making it one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Roughly 3,000 people visit Virunga National Park each year, but almost all are employees and affiliates of non-governmental organizations, such as The Buffet Foundation, Conservation International, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Wildlife Conservation Society, who are currently stationed in Goma for sustainable development projects and research in the region, or government workers with the UN and USAID wanting to escape the smog-filled streets of Goma for a weekend of R&R at Virunga’s beautiful Mikeno Lodge.
Virunga National Park held a soft opening for Mikeno Lodge in January 2014, but over the course of a six day visit in early November, no other tourist or ex-pat, other than spouses of workers from Goma, were observed. In three months’ time, the registration books for permit holders to visit the gorillas or climb Nyiragongo Volcano listed only two other visitors not affiliated with one of the aforementioned organizations. The movie Virunga, however, seems to be changing all of that. Currently, for the months of December and January, Mikeno Lodge has been almost entirely sold out for accommodation, and up to half of these are actual tourists coming from other countries, despite concerns of Ebola (which is in fact not present in Congo) and the ongoing threat of collapse in the region.
To book a trip with experts in the region, visit www.wantexpeditions.com.
About WANT Expeditions
WANT Expeditions is the world leader in highly personalized, conservation-oriented small group travel, connecting travelers, adventurers, photographers and conservationists from all over the world through expeditions to see the most amazing natural phenomena that exist on our planet. The company only uses local (and often family owned) business partners, practices strong conservation measures, supports protection of cultures and traditions, discourages hand-outs and encourages letting go of western ideals to experience true cultural immersion.
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