As the CEO of an African hospitality group, I spend a fairly big chunk of my time travelling across the continent. And I spend a fair amount of time signing off on the visa expenses of my team members who travel within Africa. And sometimes, I throw my hands up in frustration when a team member’s visa is denied for no apparent reason, even though they are travelling for business.
Now imagine this frustration as a potential tourist or visitor. There are myriad campaigns encouraging us to explore our own doorstep first before going overseas. So you want to let your wanderlust take you from South to North Africa or East to West Africa but you’re stopped in your tracks by the red tape and cost implications of pricey visas.
We all get the purpose of visas, but heavy-handed legislation certainly isn’t achieving what it should and in fact stifles economic growth. In some cases, it’s easier to get a visa to travel overseas than it is for intra-Africa travel. Here we are, trying to attract tourists and create exciting offerings, but those on our very doorstep, who could really move the tourism needle, are disincentivised from doing so. Why not just allow the option of a visa on arrival?
I’ve said time and time again that tourism drives a country’s economy in good times and bad. In a continent like Africa, which has such widespread need for job creation, we should be embracing every possible tourism opportunity - local and otherwise. Easing barriers to entry or simplifying the application process not only attracts foreign visitors, but also foreign investment from business people who see an opportunity to invest in a thriving tourism industry. There is an almost infinite knock-on effect - everything from keeping a national airline carrier afloat to giving an entrepreneur the lifeline that could get his business off the ground.
Fortunately some countries have realised this and progress is being made according to the 2019 Africa Visa Openness Index, published in November last year. This index gives countries a score in terms of how open they are to welcoming citizens from other African countries when they travel. South Africa, for example, is ranked 35th on the index out of 54. Last year 47 countries improved or maintained their scores and a visa is no longer required for travelling to one-quarter of the countries in Africa.It also states that 21 countries offer eVisas, which is a technological step in the right direction in terms of making the process quicker and easier. This also reduces costs - and I’m sure we’ve all wondered where those exorbitant visa fees really go.
If you break down the stats, 51% of Africans have “liberal access” (they either don’t need a visa or can get one on arrival) to other African countries, while 49% need visas to travel to other African countries. Within those groups, 26% of Africans can get visas on arrival and a mere 25% don’t need a visa to travel to other African countries. All of these figures are up from previous years, but there’s clearly still work to be done and I hope that those countries that are not yet “open” will follow the examples of their counterparts.
In the context of the Visa Openness Index, the President of the African Development Bank Group, Akinwumi A. Adesina, said:
“Regional integration is crucial for Africa's accelerated development. We must connect landlocked countries to ports. We must allow free movement of people. Investors must be able to invest beyond the borders of countries. And Africa must trade more with itself. Apart and divided, Africa is weakened. Together and united, Africa will be unstoppable!”
He has succinctly captured my exact sentiment: Africa needs to integrate more in order for us to be a global player. I’ve previously written about consolidation, which ties into this theme. The more we work together, the stronger we will be.
It is hugely telling that those countries that scored highest in terms of visa openness are also the top countries for foreign direct investment and growth - notably in the tourism sector. The likes of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda will continue to soar, in part because of the progress they’re making in this regard.
So let’s help each other grow our economies by being welcoming, not only in terms of doing business, but in terms of travel and the immense impact that has.