The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our societies and economies, and continues to reshape the world with the emergence of new variants. The crisis has tipped the scales for the tourism sector in the region, which pre-pandemic, contributed significantly to the bloc’s economic growth.
In 2019, the sector contributed an average of 8.1 per cent to the gross domestic product of East African Community (EAC) partner states and brought about an average increase of 17.2 per cent to total exports.
Tourism plays a catalytic role in the broader economy through direct revenues for airlines, travel agents, hotels, shops, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. It also contributes to indirect economic impact through induced spending in agricultural produce, manufactured goods, transportation, entertainment and handicraft.
Travel restrictions to curb the pandemic saw EAC partner states lose 92 per cent of revenues in tourism. Arrivals dropped from approximately 7 million in 2019 to 2.25 million in 2020 (Sixth EAC Development Strategy).
With Omicron, the latest variant of the coronavirus, prompting fresh border closures, it is about time we started to interrogate the effectiveness of travel restrictions by weighing their disruptive social-economic impact. This seems timely as recent studies suggest that reducing community transmission rates could be more effective in containing the spread of the virus than border closures.
To trigger travel demand and keep global borders open, we must ensure equitable access to vaccines, coordinate international travel procedures, and embrace technology to authenticate test and vaccination certificates.
Like the rest of the world, the resumption of travel and tourism in Africa will depend largely on a coordinated response among countries regarding travel restrictions, harmonised safety and hygiene protocols, and effective communication to help restore consumer confidence.
We must, however, appreciate that the current global health concerns and barriers to travel may take time to wane. As such, the continent must self-reflect, and promote domestic and intra-continental tourism for a more sustainable recovery.
Africa needs to address critical tourism competitiveness drivers, to foster intra-continental tourism. Top on our agenda should be visa openness.
The Africa Visa Openness Report 2020 findings show that African citizens still need visas to travel to 46 per cent of other African countries, while only 28 per cent can get visas on arrival. These restrictive and cumbersome visa requirements diminish tourists’ motivation to travel and indirectly reduce the availability of critical services. The continent should prioritise ongoing efforts to enhance its visa openness.
Another critical pillar to address is the liberalisation of African skies to improve intra-continental connectivity. Try flying from any East African capital to northern Africa, and you will quickly discover how poorly connected we are as a continent.
A trip that should take no more than five-and-a-half hours in some cases takes an estimated 12 to 25 hours, as one has to take connecting flights via Europe or the Middle East! A direct flight would probably cost an estimated $600; however, you will be lucky to get a flight for less than $850.
The African Union has taken steps to make open skies a reality through the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) created to expedite the full implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision. Once operationalised, greater African connectivity will reduce air travel time and costs, catalysing intra-continental trade and tourism growth.
The current Covid-19 crisis and past disease outbreaks have demonstrated Africa’s preparedness to manage pandemics. Early warning systems and continuous investments in public health have seen the continent handle infectious outbreaks relatively better. However, though well-intended, the requirements for testing before departure, confirmatory testing on arrival, and in some cases quarantine, are both costly and inconvenient, hence deterring travel, particularly for leisure purposes.
The African Union-backed PanaBIOS has been critical in disseminating Covid-19 test results on a secure digital platform accessible to all member states. The EAC has also developed an EACPass that integrates and validates EAC partner states’ Covid-19 tests and vaccination certificates to ease entry across the region. Once fully rolled out, the EACPass will be integrated with other regional and continental digital health platforms to enhance transparency and guarantee the authenticity of certificates.
The continent could benefit from investing in targeted and effective tourism promotion campaigns for the African market. The EAC’s recently launched “Tembea Nyumbani” campaign is a key step towards catalysing intra-regional tourism. A similar approach across all regional economic communities could fundamentally transform the continent’s tourism and reduce our reliance on international arrivals, as has happened in Europe over the years, where intra-regional tourists account for 80 per cent of total tourism arrivals.
Finally, allow me to quote an African proverb: “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” For years, international media has created negative perceptions and representations about Africa. Scenes of civil wars, hunger, corruption, greed, diseases, and poverty have defined us. Perhaps it is time to start interrogating our role in their narratives, but even more importantly, define Africa ourselves.
Dr Peter M. Mathuki is the Secretary General, East African Community. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @pmathuki