After more than six years of talking without action, three of the five member-countries of the East African Community finally picked up the energy to make the initial step towards introducing a single tourist visa.
Come January next year, a foreigner will pay for a single tourist Visa from the country of entry or foreign missions and will be free to tour Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda without the need for multiple visas.
For example, if an American tourist lands at Kigali International Airport or visits Rwanda’s embassy in Washington DC, they will be issued with a visa that allows them to tour Kenya and Uganda as well.
In other words, the three countries can effective January be marketed as one package—a single tourist destination that comes with immense synergies. The most obvious of all is that it is bound to increase the competitiveness of our tourism industry among the increasingly choosy foreign tourist.
With the single visa, the three countries have managed to put together a palatable package comprising Kenya’s beautiful coastline, Uganda’s diverse game and bird species as well as Rwanda’s mountain gorillas and rich flora and fauna.
For only $100, a tourist will be able to see all types of tropical wild animals—from the jumbos to lions and giraffes; crocodiles to hippos and from mountain gorillas to the naughty monkeys and baboons. Remember, Uganda, Rwanda and to some extent DR Cong own the world’s biggest population of mountain gorillas.
It is now up to tour operators to craft an appropriate message to alert millions of discerning foreign tourists out there that east Africa is the place to visit, on a budget.
However, that is not is all that there is to be done in order to fully exploit the rich tourism potential of this region. The main problem lies with the dilapidated road network and in the near absence of alternative means of transport, and not the absence of a single tourist visa.
Consider a tourist coming in through Kigali International Airport and wishes to crossover to Uganda’s visit Kidepo National Park to see elephants and antelopes.
That tourist must endure three days of travelling on terrible roads to get to Kidepo in the north-eastern part of the country.
Yet the alternative air transport that would cut the journey to just minutes is limited in scope and lacking in affordability. While airstrips and in some cases airports exist near major tourism facilities, some are either in ruins or there are no airlines to provide scheduled domestic flight.
Where services exist, the price is prohibitive. A tourist will for example have to spend $320 on a 45-minutes flight return air ticket from Kigali to Entebbe International Airport.
Similarly, a tourist starting a tour in Nairobi and wishes to crossover to Kigali needs 225 Euros to fly by RwandAir or 254 Euros by Kenya Airways. This is higher than the average 200 Euros the same Kenya Airways will charge for a return air ticket from Entebbe to Dubai.
Some might say that numbers matter a lot in airline business, but it is the availability of affordable services that drive numbers upwards.
Rwanda Revenue Authority figures show that there are over 2,000 persons that cross the Rwanda/Uganda border everyday—braving more than 12 hours on buses on very bad roads. Yet some of them could afford, say, $100 to reduce the journey between Kigali and Kampala to just 45 minutes by air.
Cruise boats on L. Victoria would, for example, not only reduce the number of hours one needs to travel by road from Tanzania to Kampala, but would also add the flavour to the tourism package.
So would a fast passenger train meandering from Rwanda’s beautiful hills through Uganda’s valleys and perhaps national parks on its way to Kampala and beyond.
In addition to the planned the tripartite railway line project, there is need to fast-track other transport infrastructure projects—water, road and air to ease movement of people. Only then will it be possible to turn this region into a leading global tourist destination.
The author is a journalist