Bumpy ride: EAC single tourist visa plan delayed by national and regional red tape

Saturday January 25 2014

Reluctance by Tanzania and Burundi to join the visa plan and national and regional bureaucratic hurdles delay project. TEA Graphic

Reluctance by Tanzania and Burundi to join the visa plan and national and regional bureaucratic hurdles delay project. TEA Graphic 

By Joint Report The EastAfrican

East Africa’s quest for a single tourist visa has received a setback after Tanzania indicated last week that it is not ready to join the arrangement.

The decision by Dar es Salaam has not only made the journey longer but also exposed the bureaucratic and nationalistic hurdles that continue to haunt the plan.

Last week, Tanzanian authorities said that they will adopt the single tourist visa plan later, and gave their blessings to the other EAC partner states to go ahead with the arrangement.

And a similar deal sponsored by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda under the so-called Coalition of the Willing (CoW) has been pushed back, at least by a month, following procurement hiccups.

The three countries had agreed in principle to issue a joint $100 East African tourist visa allowing visitors to enter the three countries without restrictions from January 1, 2014.

Delays in procurement

But in an address to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) on Tuesday, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni said delays in procurement of the necessary infrastructure had pushed the date to next month. Tourists have had to seek and pay for visas in each of the member states they visit.

The CoW partners decided to roll out the joint visa after they realised that Tanzania and Burundi were dilly-dallying on joining the scheme.

It is understood that countries have had reservations about different issues such as security, collection and distribution of revenue and efficiency of the single visa regime in stimulating tourism growth.

The distribution of revenues has been a major issue. The proposed arrangement is such that the visa fee collected will be shared among member states, with the issuing country taking $10 and the remaining $90 shared equally among member states.

This means that Kenya — though expected to be largest visa issuing country due to its more advanced air transport connections — stands to lose at least $10 for every regional visa it issues.

“Uganda will lose at least $20 on each visa, but an increase in visitors should cover this loss,” said Grace Aulo, the acting director in charge of tourism in Uganda.

Tanzania charges $50 for single-entry visas and $100 for multiple entry visas for each applicant. In 2012, it is estimated that Tanzania earned over $50 million in single entry visa fees alone — good income in a country where the official annual tourism earnings stand at $1.82 billion.

Tanzania’s EAC Minister Samuel Sitta on Friday last week said Dar was uncomfortable with the single visa arrangement, arguing it was a threat to the country’s security and economy.

“Tanzania has the largest number of tourist attractions in the region, and as of last year it had the largest number of tourists in East Africa. In an arrangement like this, how will the revenue from visa charges be shared?” Mr Sitta asked.

While this announcement was seen as the latest signal of Tanzania’s seeming reluctance to implement regional agreements, it highlights the obstacles the EAC countries face in rolling out big joint projects that have major implications on their economies.

In the absence of a legally binding framework to implement these projects, action and pace has largely depended on the willingness of the different countries.

What is at stake?

The position of East Africa as one of the continent’s most attractive tourist destinations has recently come under threat from other blocs taking advantage of the region’s cumbersome business procedures, insecurity and poor infrastructure to boost their competitive edge.

EAC member states have therefore been looking for joint and individual initiatives to boost tourism in the region, with the single tourist visa seen as one of the major weapons in this quest.

The latest World Economic Forum (WEF) survey on global tourism and travel competitiveness shows that Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi are trailing emerging global tourism giants in sub-Saharan Africa such as Seychelles, Mauritius and South Africa. In the sub-Saharan region, the three were ranked at the top followed by Cape Verde, Namibia, Gambia and Botswana.

Kenya, EAC’s top tourism investment destination, came eighth. Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda took positions nine, 12 and 13 respectively. Burundi was ranked at 30.

Kenya saw its tourism earnings drop 7.4 per cent to Ksh96.24 billion ($1.11 billion) in the year ending June 2013, from Ksh103.91 billion ($1.12 billion) the previous year.
Rwanda had 664,729 visitors in 2012 and collected at least $142.5 million in tourism revenues in the first quarter of 2013.

Tourist arrivals in Tanzania increased from 867,994 in 2011, to 1,077, 058 in 2012, a 24 per cent rise.

Uganda’s tourism earnings are estimated to have hit $1 billion in 2012.

Industry players said that for a single tourist visa arrangement to work, there has to be a well-financed joint marketing effort to sell the region as a single destination.

“They require up to a 30 per cent increment in their current marketing budgets to meet the requirements of joint marketing,” said Waturi Matu, the East Africa Tourism Platform co-ordinator.

The EAC Secretariat said last year that it had lined up several projects to increase tourism earnings from $7 billion to $16 billion annually by 2020. The plan is to double the number of tourists to 10 million annually. The planned investments are expected to cost $3.95 billion by 2020, up from the current $1.65 billion.

Kenya spends about $25 million on marketing tourism, compared with Rwanda’s $10 million and Uganda’s $100,000. This spending is dwarfed by South Africa’s, estimated at $100 million in 2012, with 60 per cent of the amount going to traditional markets like the UK, Germany and the US.

Players see the low spending by regional countries as one of the biggest threats to realising the benefits of a joint regional tourist visa, especially as the region needs to have both country-specific and regional marketing plans.

“We have different packages to sell and merging them will give help cut costs and in return make East Africa a more preferred destination, hence increasing the number of tourists,” said Muriithi Ndegwa, managing director at the Kenya Tourist Board.

The WEF ranks East Africa as the second most open sub-region on the globe, with only 33 per cent of the world’s population required to have a traditional visa in order to visit the region.

Visa regimes

“Seamless travel through the joint visa has come in time to make EAC more competitive than other regions. We have been having difficulties in explaining to clients the different visa regimes in different countries and the multiple processes required to obtain a visa to visit the region,” said Rosette Chantal Rugamba, the founder and managing director of Songa Africa, a Rwanda-based tour firm.

A joint visa is seen a way of increasing the region’s appeal due to the uniqueness offered by each member country. For example, while Kenya is endowed with beaches and world-renowned parks like the Maasai Mara, Uganda is home to the world’s best white water rafting rivers and also hosts the highest bird species in the world. Rwanda is home to the endangered mountain gorillas. Tanzania is known for its safari circuits, and beaches.

This package is what makes the region unique. It is this uniqueness that industry players say will help make cross-selling tourism packages across the region possible.

Second destination

About 90 per cent of the tourists who visit Rwanda will have first visited Kenya or Tanzania. Tanzania too is often a second destination.

“Out of the 1.1 million tourists who came to Tanzania in 2012, almost 300,000 came courtesy of Kenya’s marketing and infrastructural services endowment, which Tanzania must continue to tap,” said Hoseana Lunogelo, executive director at Tanzania’s Economic and Social Research Foundation.

He said while Tanzania received less than 20 per cent of visitors to the EAC region in the past six years, it got 40 per cent of the total money spent by tourists.

According to statistics, each tourist in Kenya spent about $600, in Uganda about $700 and in Rwanda less than $400. Those visiting Tanzania spent more than $1,500.

According to WEF, the cost of obtaining multiple visas — in this case to Kenya, Uganda or Rwanda — whether in terms of money or the paperwork needed, can be a turn-off for travellers.

“Travellers see visas mainly as a formality that imposes a cost. If the cost of obtaining a visa — either the direct monetary cost imposed in the form of fees or the indirect costs, which can include distance, time spent waiting in lines, and the complexity of the process — exceeds a threshold, potential travellers are simply deterred from making a particular journey or choose an alternative destination with less hassle,” said the WEF in its 2013 report.

But Tumaini University Makumira lecturer Elifuraha Laltaika says there is no direct connection between payment of multiple visa fees and flow of tourists.

“I am not convinced that someone can have enough money to spend as a tourist and find $100 or $200 visa fees so expensive as to discourage her or him from coming to East Africa,” he said.

Tanzania has said joining the single tourist visa arrangement later on is not uncommon practice.

“In Europe, a few countries adopted the Schengen visa at the beginning and others joined at the later stage,” said Tanzania Tourist Board managing director Aloyce Nzuki.

Assessing their readiness

Dr Nzuki added that even in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), only five member states are piloting a single tourist visa, whereas 14 others are still assessing their readiness.

“Since these partner states are sovereign countries, the best thing is to give them time,” said the TTB official.

Dr Nzuki argued that if the EAC partner states have no mechanism to share immigration information when a visitor for example enters Tanzania from Kenya, in the absence of an integrated immigration system, criminals can easily cross from one country to the other at will.

“The current cumbersome process for tourists to acquire visas is a major hindrance rather than fees. We need to issue visas online like India if we want increased tourists flow,” Dr Nzuki said.

EAC countries are yet to harmonise their immigration management systems to network with border points and embassies abroad. The delay has been caused by slow procurement procedures.

Some industry players in Uganda are pessimistic about the benefits from the single tourist visa, arguing that without equipping the tourism sector, the country will lose out to its counterparts now that visitors have access to all three countries at the same cost. The low marketing budget also means that the other countries can market their attractions independently.

Achieve the opposite

Boniface Byamukama, chair of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, said that while the government is counting on an increasing the number of tourists to Uganda, the single visa could achieve the opposite.

“Uganda is not competitive in terms of service delivery,” he said, adding that the hotel, transport and catering services are all below the standards in the other two CoW countries and tourists could avoid Uganda on that basis.

Reported by Peterson Thiong’o, Adam Ihucha, Berna Namata, Christabel Ligami, Dicta Asiimwe and Scola Kamau