Rwanda’s tourism sector is feeling the pinch of the prolonged travel ban by the United Kingdom, which added the country to its red list at the end of January to prevent the spread of new variants of Covid-19.
While all the East African countries are currently on the UK's red list, Rwanda and Burundi were the first countries in the region to be added on the list on January 29. Rwanda protested the ban, saying the “arbitrary decision” by the UK does not “stand up to scientific scrutiny” given the country’s strict enforcement of Covid-19 protocols. The UK has maintained that the decision was taken to minimise the risk of the new variants spreading into the country.
The ban forced RwandAir to suspend its Kigali-London Heathrow service, which had been recently added after flying to Gatwick. The London route, which had already been downgraded to one flight from three weekly flights, is important for Rwanda’s exports as well as transit passengers to and from Europe.
“ ...Rwanda fought hard to earn that UK slot for its airline, and it felt it wasn’t treated fairly…” Andrew Mold, the head of regional integration and AfCFTA Cluster at UNECA’s sub regional office for Eastern Africa in Kigali told The East African recently.
While East African countries were lobbying for travel restrictions to be eased ahead of the summer season, the region, which is battling a third wave, remains on the UK's red list. This will further dampen prospects for tourism and trade.
Rwanda was forced to suspend hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting for the second time, which had been scheduled for June this year to a date yet to be announced. Businesses in tourism and hospitality had banked on the event to help them recover losses accumulated during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Rwanda registered a steady rise in the number of visitors from the UK, recording a five percent increase in visitors after signing a three-year marketing deal worth $39 million for its “Visit Rwanda” sleeve sponsorship with English premier league team Arsenal in May 2018.
According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s tourism has been severely affected by Covid-19 and this had multiplier effects on the economy. However, the gradual rollout of the vaccine is expected to help restore consumer confidence, contribute to the easing travel restrictions and slowly normalise travel in 2022.