As part of a wider commitment to deepening East African cooperation, Kenya joined Uganda and Rwanda in 2014 in creating a single tourism visa regime for the region. Officially launched in the Ugandan capital of Kampala on February 20, the immediate effect of the combined visa is to reduce the cost of visiting the trio to $100, compared to $150 for the three separate visas. The single visa – which allows foreigners multiple entries into the three states for a period of 90 days – will also streamline the visa application process.
Prior to the introduction of the single visa, East Africa was deemed the second-most-open sub-region globally, due to visa-on-arrival access for 62% of the world’s population, but travellers had to get a separate visa for each nation. “We hope that with the single visa operational, more people will want to visit the region,” said Anne Musau, senior assistant director of tourism at the Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism.
While officials are optimistic that the single visa regime will help to attract visitors who might otherwise visit different regions in Africa, there are security concerns, and issues relating to infrastructure and service, which may negatively affect numbers. In addition, for the single visa to succeed, better integrated efforts in marketing East Africa as a single destination will be needed. Some tour operators in Uganda expressed concern about competition between the three countries, but others dismissed fears, saying that marketing would be done jointly from now on.
Indeed, in March 2014 officials from the three nations announced the launch of a joint marketing strategy promoting the single visa. Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda had already shared a pavilion at the Internationale Tourismus-Börse exhibition hosted in Berlin, where the new single visa was presented and each showcased tourist attractions from the region. The three countries went on to share a booth at a trade fair in South Africa and plan to do so again in London in November 2014.
Currently the majority of tourists to the region come from the US and Western Europe. Rwanda Development Board’s chief executive Valentine Rugwabiza told media that the group is also looking to Eastern Europe and China to market the project and attract more investment. In addition, tourism officials are seeking to tap the regional travel market as nationals of the three East African states can now cross borders with only national identity cards as travel documents.
Further streamlining will also be required to standardise the classification of hotels, restaurants and other facilities across the region, which will help multi-country visitors to be certain of what they are getting. The East African Community (EAC) rolled out standards in August 2010, but there remain discrepancies between rankings across the region, after operators were delayed in submitting the requirements that were to be classified.
For most hospitality facilities, a five-star ranking system exists, a system that EAC officials describe as a way of building confidence in potential visitors. “Standards for facilities and pricing are all moving to a regional base,” said Jacqueline Odudoh, administration manager of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators. “Assessors have been trained to classify hotels and other facilities across the region. It has not happened yet, but when it does the classification criteria will help investors.”
Tanzania – which had more than 1m visitors in 2012 – declined to join the new visa regime, citing security concerns and saying that the country could lose out on visa revenue due to Kenya’s better air connections. The Tanzanian government fears that the majority of tourists will enter the region through Nairobi, which receives four times more international flights than the Tanzanian commercial centre Dar es Salaam, and that Kenya would collect more visa fees.
Under the new joint visa scheme, the issuing country is reportedly entitled to $40 per visa, including $10 to cover administrative costs, while the other two will take $30 each. The impact of the administration involved in transferring funds between the participants is not clear, but a transfer of revenues is expected quarterly.
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