In a bid to promote the tourism industry in the East African Community, regional top chief executives from the five member states last week endorsed a common tourist visa, which will ease marketing the region as a single travel package.
“A single tourist visa is desirable in the region, it will facilitate the growth of the tourism sector, and it would reduce the burden on tourists. If we are already doing marketing as a region, then why not start issuing one single visa as a community?” said Edwin Muzahura, Business Development Manager at Tourism Uganda.
“We shall be able to do more business, though this may be a challenge to small countries that don’t get many tourists. It should not be an issue because little money is collected from visa fees.”
Tourist entry visa fees range between $50 (Frw27,187) and $100 (Frw54,375) across the region. However Kenya has “special arrangements” for tourists intending to have a multiple destination tour with East Africa. Such tourists are issued “visitor passes” upon arrival which allows re-entry to Kenya at no extra cost.
Muzahura also noted that Uganda has plans to scrap its visa fees. The single tourist visa initiative was first proposed by immigration officials from the original members of the East African community—Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania—in 2006 in order to accelerate and promote the growth of the tourism sector in the region.
Consequently a proposal for a common tourist visa has been tabled before the East African Community (EAC) ministers in charge of immigration.
The EAC Council of Ministers, which is the designated decision-making authority on all matters of sovereignty, revenue, policy and immigration matters, is the organ that will ultimately adopt the joint visas for tourists.
If approved by the East African Council of Ministers, tourists will apply for one country entry visa that will be applicable in all regional member states.
The visa would allow tourists to travel through a series of endless borders to sample the unique attractions that East Africa has to offer.
The common visa program could help tour operators and hoteliers to plan and arrange their guests’ itineraries and packages better, said Dennis Ntege, marketing director for Adrift Adventure Company.
“It is definitely ideal to have a common tourist visa because it will make our tour package more attractive,” he told The New Times. “It becomes cheaper for the tourist.
For instance, if a tourist is in Kenya and would like to come to Uganda to do a day of rafting or bungee jumping in Jinja and go back, the only costs he will incur will be on transport and rafting and then go back saving about $50 at the border which would have been the cost of the visa.”
Ntege said a single visa is a good incentive to travel to the region. “It makes the region as a destination for any tourist more attractive because it is easily accessible. A common visa is a better deal for us as tour operators,” he said.
The EAC Secretariat has listed the single tourist visa among its foremost future plans and had initially hoped that it would be operational if agreed upon by the five states—Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania—by November 2006.
According to top business management in the region, the tourism sector gives the region a comparative advantage on the global market. The region boasts of some of the world’s leading tourists attractions.
These include: wildlife, natural resources such as rainforests, lakes and rivers, and diverse historical cultural sites that cut across the region.
“Rwanda recognizes the need to tackle issues as a region because this will enhance economic development in the region. We have already scrapped work permits for members from the EAC. The tourism industry in Rwanda is doing very well and generating a lot of revenue,” Clare Akamanzi, deputy director general of Rwanda Investment and Export Promotions Agency said, adding that a single tourist visa for the region is good.
“We don’t see other member states as competitors but complementary. Each of us has a comparative advantage.”
She was part of the participants during the East African Business Summit at Serena Hotel in Kampala Uganda.
Rwanda has already positioned itself for development by diversifying its tourist attractions, says the Rwanda Tourism Board. This includes looking at cultural heritage, national parks and historical sites such as Gisozi Memorial Site as an option in addition to the mountain gorillas.
Tourism is Rwanda’s highest export earner and the Tourism office hopes to increase it by engaging the private sector. It also aims to attract 70,000 tourists to stay in the country for at least seven days by 2010.
This will bring in $100 million (Frw54.4 billion) to the country, Akamanzi said. “Our vision is to enhance the tourism sector to a level where it contributes more to the GDP,” she said.
A total of 3,310,065 tourists visited East Africa last year. Kenya, the region’s biggest economy had 2,001,034 tourists; Tanzania 719,031; Uganda 550,000; and Rwanda recorded 40,000, nearly double from 26,000 in 2004.
No figures were available for Burundi last year but records indicate it received 148,000 and 133,000 tourists in 2005 and 2004 respectively.