There are several things that unite member states of the East African Community (EAC) and tourism is certainly one of them. Unlike other areas, our region took ages to find any serious precious things under the soil so we focused on what we could do with the soil and what was on it. We tilled the land for food and later invited people to come and see how our lands are shaped and also look at the animals we have.
Those with beautiful lakes and mountains showed off just that while others showed off the beasts of the wild as well as the gentle birds to those who carried some foreign currency from far lands. It is therefore not surprising that today, tourism ranks among the top five sectors that bring in foreign exchange for all the countries in EAC.
What is indisputable is the fact that the sector still has room for growth if we can identify the bottlenecks and figure out how to go about them. Some efforts have been made like the single tourist visa that allows a tourist to visit three countries. East Africans already have it easy with no visa requirement as well as ability to use their national identity cards when it comes to Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.
Of course the individual countries also have their unique challenges to deal with. In Kenya the lions are now regular visitors to human spaces after their own were encroached. Uganda keeps messing up its visa policies and under-selling itself while poaching in Tanzania is at levels that make the Chinese rub their hands with glee.
Burundi simply logged out of its tourism account when the politics got sour while Rwanda struggles with the enigma of not having a night life to talk about which leaves tourists struggling to find what to do with the rest of their time in a safe and clean city. South Sudan is yet to even log onto the tourism system although it has great potential.
All said and done, the issue of abnormally high airfares occasioned by the high taxes each country levies remains an own goal for the region’s tourism industry. At one time the region had a single airline; East African Airways (EAA) that was later torn to pieces over a number of differences some as flimsy as the fact that only Kenya’s Tusker beer was being served on the planes.
However today we are not even asking for the revival of EAA but liberalisation of the airspace to make regional flights local and thus reduce on the double or triple taxation that makes the price of an air ticket require some of us to sell a kidney before we can book a flight to fly to a city across the border.
We have solved the issue of telephone roaming charges for Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda and the benefits are there for all to see. We also need to bring down the cost of air travel because travelling was never meant to be for a certain exclusive section of society.
I have had a chance to look at some research on the viability and benefits of open skies for East Africa and I can say with certainty that it can only result in new routes and frequencies which will mean shorter (and better) time travels and obviously lower fares. The increase in air traffic will boost economic growth and more jobs will be created to handle this increase in air traffic.
Of course the high taxes characterising the current situation were designed to benefit some carriers and keep out others but we all know that Kenya Airways is struggling financially while Rwandair is yet to attain profitability.
Even the Tanzania-based low cost carrier, FastJet is also not very healthy financially while other countries don’t have much to show in the aviation department. It then seems to me that we are squeezing ourselves from all sides.
A lot of studies show that from the 1970s governments around the world had begun realising that restrictive regulations were holding back economies. For us, tourism stands to be the biggest beneficiary as we all know that tourists spend on hotels, restaurants, entertainment and recreation, car rentals, and we need more of them coming in by air.
I know our leaders have touched on this subject before but I don’t think we need to waste much time on this.Follow https://twitter.com/ssojo81