The African Development Bank (AfDB) recently put out an Africa Visa Openness report – the first of its kind – assessing how easy it is for African travelers to visit other countries on the continent. For me, this report could not have been more timely. I am a Kenyan citizen. At the time I was in Ivory Coast jumping over very many huddles as I tried to obtain the necessary visas that would take me on a road trip from Abidjan to Bobo and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, to Lome in Togo, to Cotonou and Ouidah in Benin and finally get me back to Abidjan in good time to catch my flight back to Nairobi. I cannot fully explain the incredulous looks on the visa officers’ faces when I said I was not visiting friends or family in those countries but simply traveling as a tourist. “Then you need to show us confirmed hotel bookings if you cannot provide all these documentation from your host.” At this point I should mention that not only was my non-existent “host” in those countries required to send me an invitation letter, proof of their residency in the country, but these documents had to be signed and stamped by a high ranking police officer based in their home area. I wondered, “Hotel bookings? I am traveling by bus, how could I possibly know what exact dates I will get to these cities, how long I will stay etc.” I definitely did not mention I was planning to couchsurf in the different cities. I quickly learned that as an African traveler that there is no room for spontaneity – when traveling you need to have every single aspect of your trip planned.
I have traveled to 42 countries worldwide, 16 of them in Africa. I can claim to be an unofficial expert on visa affairs. What surprises me the most is that having made my peace that I will almost always be treated with a certain level of suspicion when traveling outside the continent, especially when I claim to be traveling simply for wanderlust – not as an economic migrant or a refugee, and not helping my cause in any way by being a single African woman – a segment I have increasingly began to understand is considered a flight risk, I thought my travel experiences on the continent would be easier. I was ready for my continent to embrace me with open arms and tell me “We trust each other, even if the world doesn’t trust us.” I hate to admit it, but actually traveling within the African continent as an African is not any easier. Even the African Development Bank agrees, stating “North Americans have easier travel access to the continent than African themselves. North Americans require a visa to travel to 45% of African countries, can get visas on arrival in 35% of African countries and don’t need a visa in 20% of African countries. Africans on the other hand need visas to travel to 55% of other African countries, can get visas on arrival in 25% of other countries and don’t need a visa to travel to 20% of other countries.”
While the requirement of having a visa and all the documentation that needs to be provided is highly restrictive, I chose to focus on additional factors that would make a middle class African more willing to go to Dubai, London or Paris on vacation rather than immediately thinking of going to another African country. This is a great loss to the continent as it means collectively we are not yet benefitting from the “Africa rising” rhetoric if huge proportions of tourist spending is not used within the continent.
Cost of visas – From my experience traveling, costs of visas to some African countries are unbelievably high. A one month multiple entry visa to Ivory Coast is $125 for a Kenyan. My visas to Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin ranged between $65 - $120 each for one month visas (single entry in some cases.)
Duration of visas – Most African countries are still only willing to give one month single entry visas to other African visitors (with a multiple entry visa for that same time-frame almost being twice as expensive.) Given all the hurdles one has to cross to obtain some of these African visas, the least that can be expected is not to have to go through the same process every time someone travels to the same country again.
Ambiguity of visa processes – Google any telephone number for an African country you know little about, but would really love to travel to. It is highly likely you will not find contact details for their embassy in your country (perhaps they do not have an embassy in your country.) If they do have an embassy in your country, it is very likely their website was last updated before the new millennium. Try calling the number on the website and it will likely not go through or you will get a message that the number no longer exists. Send an email to the general email address on the site and it will likely bounce back. You will have to go in person and even then you might arrive and have the guard tell you they only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am – 2pm. Eventually you might give up and decide to travel elsewhere.
Inflexible bureaucracy – Many times the consulates have a check-list that they will not make any compromises on. When applying for my Beninois visa at the consulate in Abidjan, they needed my airline ticket. I told them I would be traveling by bus and they asked for my bus ticket. When I mentioned that would be the 5th or 6th long distance bus of my trip – and as such I did not yet have it and would have to book it along the way, they insisted I purchase my first bus ticket (Abidjan to Bobo in Burkina Faso) and bring it to them before they could process my application. How does me having a bus ticket from Ivory Coast to Burkina Faso, prove I won’t disappear in Benin? I’m not quite sure, but they somehow think it does.
The remaining set of factors, I describe as the chicken and egg factors. Perhaps they are the way they are because there is not enough intra-African traffic moving between the countries, or perhaps there is minimal intra-african traffic because of these factors.
Flight costs – It is sometimes said as a joke, but at any given point it is much cheaper (50-70% cheaper) to fly to Europe, the UAE and sometimes North America than it is to fly within the African continent. A quick internet search for flights, and you will find return flights at over $1000 from Nairobi to Maputo, over $1200 for Nairobi to Dakar, Nairobi to Zanzibar $300. A similar search for flights and you will find return tickets from Nairobi to Dubai for $350, Nairobi to London - $600 and Dakar to Paris - $600. Coupled with the visa challenges, it is easy to see how even well-traveled Africans might just not be well-traveled on the continent. Traveling round our own continent is a labor of love.
Shortage of tourist facilities – While tourist facilities are really well developed in some African countries, the reality is that in others they are severely lagging behind. It is not surprising given some of these countries have not historically been seen as tourist attractions and have rarely been visited by tourists. In many cases the main interactions such countries have had with foreigners is with aid workers, NGO employees etc. As such a tourism industry has not developed – facilities will be poor and overpriced in many cases. If it was however easier for people (including Africans) to travel to such countries, one can envision a scenario where an entrepreneur would then put in the necessary facilities to attract tourists. Even if one is trying to travel cheaply and stay in hostels, you quickly realize that “hostel” in Africa is rarely synonymous with hostels in other regions that have a backpacking culture – Europe, South America and Asia. It is noteworthy though that even in the most challenged of African countries, there is likely natural beauty, history and culture around which a tourism industry could be developed. A few years back I spent a few weeks in the Comoros Islands. I was equally amazed by how beautiful the country was, how unique the culture was but also dismayed that this country that could likely be compared to Seychelles in natural beauty, is one of the poorest in the world.
So what are the solutions? The African Development Bank report states them well: (i) Visa on arrival for Africans – Progress is being made in some countries e.g. from last year Kenyans are able to get a visa on arrival in Lagos for $25. (ii) Visa free regional blocs – Those largely exist in SSA in West Africa (ECOWAS), East Africa (EAC) and Southern Africa (SADC). The next step after this is moving to reciprocity for regional blocs – essentially if all one needs is a single visa to enter ECOWAS region even if from a different region e.g. EAC or SADC, this would greatly improve the current system. If another African travels to East Africa shouldn’t they be able to go the Maasai Mara in Kenya, visit the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania, attend a gorilla naming ceremony in Rwanda and swim in Lake Tanganyika in Burundi all on the same visa? The Schengen visa is a model we can build upon – thinking as a region rather than as a country. (iii) Multi-year visas – 5-10 year visas requiring the candidate to leave every 6 months or so would go a long way in encouraging repeat trips. Even at a substantial cost, many would be willing to forego all the hassle of applying for visas to the same countries every few months. (iv)Promoting positive reciprocity and opening up on visas unilaterally – Several African countries have already taken this up and we should see it happen on a larger scale. Seychelles offers visa free travel to all African citizens. Senegal recently got rid of visa requirements for most nationalities. Rwanda is one of the two most visa open countries in Africa (second to Mauritius). The effects have been positive with increased trade, tourism and investment in the past few years. GDP growth increased to 7% in 2014 and tourism revenues rose by 4% to USD 305 million. In 2013, the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya would eliminate visas for African states on a reciprocal basis and there has been progress on this. (v) Simplifying visa processes and (vi) Improving access to information online and in different languages.
The continent needs to capitalize on ways to increase intra-african travel with the aim of fostering unity and understanding and increasing trade and investment. On the demand side, there is no shortage of Africans who would love to see our continent with our own eyes.