The introduction of Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) by Kenya after announcing a visa waiver is rushed, stakeholders on tourism and hospitality sectors say.
President William Ruto last year announced that Kenya grant visa-free to visitors at the beginning of 2024. But, when the programme was rolled out, visitors found themselves required to apply for the eTA at a cost of at least $30.
Starting January 5, 2024, all travellers with exception of East Africans, are required to apply for and pay for a single entry 72 hours before their journey to Kenya.
While many international visitors no longer need a visa, which cost the upward of $51, now almost everyone – including 51 countries whose citizens previously enjoyed free entry – must cough up $30 for the eTA.
Since the new policy took effect last week, people across the continent have taken to social media complaining about the false promise of open borders by Kenya.
“The eTA has removed that categorisation, and all visitors are being treated equally. Now the countries that were visa-exempt are now being subjected to a cost,” said Davis Nyagah, an immigration lawyer.
“If you look at it closely, you can see that the government is trying to widen the revenue collection from visa processes. It is not visa free. Actually, they have just given the visa another name.”
On Thursday, Principal Secretary in the State Department for Immigration Julius Bitok said that the government had collected a million dollars (Ksh159 million) from some 25,000 applications.
A section of travellers have complained about the paperwork: confirmation of hotel bookings for every day, copies of already booked flight tickets, bank statements for three months… all which need to be done again (and another 72 hours wait) if the flight were to change due to no fault of their own.
Some travellers have termed it the harshest visa regime in Africa, masquerading as liberalisation of travel.
“The eTA is affecting the tourism industry. When the President said Kenya was visa-free, he never mentioned eTA,” said Michael Macharia, CEO of Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers.
“People are feeling like there was something that they were not told.”
Mr Macharia told The EastAfrican that the introduction of eTA was done in disregard to bilateral agreements that Kenya had signed with more than 50 countries. And there are concerns that those countries are likely to change their travel policy and also impose a fee on Kenyans in retaliation.
“In the old regime we had about 50 bilateral agreements with other countries for no visa -- South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Singapore, and Malaysia, among others. So, what happens to them?” Mr Macharia said.
The policy change was also not subjected to public participation, leaving room for litigation in the courts.
“They should have done their proposal, allow public participation, set up the system and then go ahead with it. It should have even taken six months to implement to allow for scrutiny and amendments,” Mr Macharia said.
But the government has defended the eTA, saying it is expected to allow more travellers to the country.
“The eTA was introduced so that it can process many people. Right now, we do not have any backlog. Applicants come in on a priority basis and within 10 to 24 hours, they get their eTA. Those who require security checks take a maximum of 72 hours to be processed,” Mr Bitok told a press briefing at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Thursday.
He said that contrary to claims that Kenya would be disadvantaged by use of eTA, the country had received more than 32,000 applications.
“We are also happy to say that of the 51 countries who have been coming to Kenya visa-free, the system has given them priority, so that as soon as they apply for eTA, they are able to get it as soon as possible. So, there is no backlog and there is no reason to worry,” the PS said.
Director-General of Immigration Evelyn Cheluget said her department was listening to feedback with a view to addressing any emerging issues.
“We have improved the system, and we are listening to our clients. We have gone ahead to reduce the number of questions in the forms that were causing a bit of stress to the people,” she said.
“The team at the headquarters is working 24/7 to ensure that clearance is done, especially on priority basis.”
We are updating it every other time to ensure that the application is stress-free and fast.
The eTA is premised on the need to have a fair, faster and reliable system that also addresses Kenya’s security and other strategic interests.
“The world is going eTA. One advantage is that we are able to get data on everybody who travels into this country, which is very good for our security and policy planning,” Ms Cheluget said.
In recent years, there has been a notable surge in visa-free entry policies within Africa. according to the Africa Visa Openness Index 2023, a joint report by the African Union and African Development Bank, which provides an annual assessment of the extent to which each country in Africa is open to visitors from other African countries, -- rated with a score from 0 – 1-- the average for 2023 across the continent was 0.485, the highest to date.
The report has three headline metrics to gauge progress - visa-free intra-African travel (defined as travel by African citizens between African countries), the ability to obtain visas on arrival, and the need to obtain a visa before travel. On all three the picture has improved.
According to this year’s index, Africans do not need a visa for 28 percent of intra-African travel (up from 20 percent in 2016), visas on arrival are obtainable for 26 percent of intra-African travel (25 percent in 2016), and visas still need to be obtained before travel for 46 percent of intra-African travel (down from 55 percent in 2016).
There were four “champions” of intra-African travel in 2023 (countries that offer visa-free travel to all African citizens) -- Seychelles, Rwanda, Benin, and The Gambia.
Liberalising visa restrictions and facilitating seamless travel contributes to enhancing trade in goods and services, as well as cross-border investment -- ultimately supporting the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).