Kenya and Tanzania have reverted to their 1985 bilateral agreement as an interim measure to resolve their differences over free movement of tourists across the border.
The two countries and Uganda have been accusing each other of policies that aim to protect their tour operators from regional competition. In a trilateral crisis meeting in Arusha last week Nairobi, Kampala and Dar failed to reach a long-term solution.
Under the agreement, tour vehicles from Uganda and Kenya will not be allowed into each other’s tourism sites; instead, tour operators will swap tourists at the countries’ respective nearest border point, Namanga, Sirare and Isebania, Holili /Taveta, Horohoro and Lungalunga.
This is the latest in a string of initiatives to boost the EAC tourism industry and market it as a single destination.
On February 20, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda launched a joint tourist visa that will work like the Schengen visa for the European Union countries. The $100 document will allow tourists to enter any of the three countries and move freely within the other two without having to pay for another visa.
Under the interim deal, once at the border, tour firms will have to contract their counterparts from the other partner state to take the tourists.
Although the process will not come at an extra cost for tour firms, the operators find it cumbersome and fear that the same quality of hospitality may not be accorded their tourists.
Uganda had complained that while it allows Kenyan registered tour vehicles to enter its tourist sites, Kenya does not reciprocate. Uganda was also concerned that it does not levy work permit fees for Tanzania’s tour operators who enter Uganda to drop off or pick up tourists but Tanzania levies $100.
Tanzania denied the allegations but stated that prior to July 2013 every non-citizen entering Tanzania for gainful activities was subject to a fee of $200 for a Carrying on Temporary Assignment Pass (CTA).
The ministers directed Kenya and Tanzania to respond to Uganda’s concerns before March 20.
Kenya Cabinet Secretary for East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism Phyllis Kandie said the move will resolve differences, promote the region as a tourism destination and foster EAC integration.
“Member states should therefore honour timelines agreed upon and work jointly to implement the decisions,” said Ms Kandie.
Waturi Matu, Kenyan co-ordinator of the East African Tourism Platform, said that the 1985 bilateral agreement is still legally binding under the current tourism laws of the two partner states.
The EAC Secretariat was asked to fast track the harmonisation process of the EAC tourism laws and review the bilateral agreement in six months.
Kenyan tour operators havesince 2010 expressed their concerns over the continued refusal by Tanzania to allow Kenyan-registered tourist vans to enter sites inside the country when Tanzania tour operators are freely entering the Kenyan sites with their vehicles.
Tanzania’s Tourism Act 2008 stipulates that foreign registered tour operator vehicles are not allowed entry into tourist sites. The law, permits only foreign tour operator companies registered in Tanzania to access these tourist sites. EAC partner state-registered tourist vehicles are considered foreign.
Tanzania Tourism Federation executive secretary Richard Rugimbana said the country will implement the agreement as it waits for the harmonisation of EAC tourism laws.
However, some tour firms are dissatisfied with the agreement. Nairobi-based Nahdy Travel & Tours Ltd managing director Faraj Abdalla said that the border closure adds extra costs to the Serengeti and the Masai Mara package, as tourists have to go back to Nairobi or Arusha to reach the other side.
“The move to have tourists change vehicles at the borders of Namanga, Sirare and Taveta is not only a humiliation for tourists, but also a window dressing for Tanzania’s policy of non-tariff barriers to keep competition away,” Mr Abdalla said.
Kenya is now charging a park entry fee of $90 per person for the international tourist, up from $75, while the other countries are charging between $50 and $60. Tanzania is charging $60 per person for international tourists while Uganda charges $40.
Other issues addressed by the ministers included the harassment of drivers and guides at the borders and on Tanzanian highways; and fees charged to Kenyan citizens.
Additional reporting by Adam Ihucha