As Africa opens up, economies will expand through trade and tourism

If we were meant to stay in one place, we would have roots instead of feet, Rachel Wolchin once said. If only she knew that travelling has been a luxury, a privilege for a few, a lottery dependent on passport and chosen destination. Fortunately, some African countries have made travelling not about visas but a thing of unity and for those that have, the African Development Bank (AfDB) in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC) in its 2018 Africa Visa Openness Index measures the level of openness with regards to visa.

The Africa Visa Openness Index measures how open African countries are when it comes to visas by observing the requirements demanded from African nationals when they make intercontinental travels, with the belief that policy shifts that would liberalize visa regimes would make travelling easier for Africans and also promote integration.

On the road to globalization, most countries enter into free trade pacts to eliminate unfair barriers in global/intercontinental commerce, and free travel pacts to boost tourism and create economic dynamism. Arguably, an Africa with open borders and open skies offer consumers the most choices as well as promotes innovation among producers in addition to other benefits.

On July 17, 2016, at the 27th Ordinary Session of the African Union, the single African passport was launched with the goal of establishing visa-free travel for African citizens on the continent by 2020. On Tuesday, January 8, 2019, the AU Chairman Moussa Faki Hammat said that the details of the design, production and issuance will be presented at the 32nd African Union Summit in February.

Despite the plans and push to promote free movement and trade, a single African passport has failed to catch on with countries that fear an increase in smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism, as well as a negative impact of visa-free travels on local job markets. Meanwhile, the World Bank has noted that intra-African trade is more expensive than trade in any other region.

To further promote integration and reduce intra-continental trade expenses, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and Single African Air Transport Market were launched in 2018. Some African heads of states appended their signatures in agreement, but scepticism still brews. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, 44 signed the AfCFTA deal. However, it can only come into force after 22 countries have ratified the agreement. So far, only eight countries have done so.

Leveraging the developments and progress made on Free Movement of Persons (the right to enter and exit African member states and move freely within them), African countries are taking steps towards allowing Africans’ rights of residence and establishment. With the Single African Air Transport Market in place, air connectivity in Africa will improve and tourism within the continent will grow, adding to the GDP of African economies.

Seychelles, a visa-free country, witnessed an average 7 percent annual increase in international tourism between 2009 and 2014. Rwanda also witnessed significant increases when it abolished work permits for East African citizens. Rwanda’s trade with Kenya and Uganda increased by at least 50 percent after abolishment.

African countries are becoming more open to each other, with indications of easier continental travel in 2018 compared to 2017 and 2016. Currently, Africans do not need a visa to travel to 25 percent of other African countries, a 5 percent and 3 percent increase from 2016 and 2017 respectively. Now, Africans can get visas on arrival in 24 percent of other African countries. However, they still need visas to travel to 51 percent of other African countries, a decrease from the 54 percent recorded in 2017.

In 2018, Benin Republic put in place new measures to improve overall entry access to the country so that non-Africans wishing to visit for less than a week with a valid passport and yellow fever certificate, can apply for a special tourist visa on arrival for a set fee. Although the country has not witnessed a significant increase in its tourism sector, its trade has seen a boost as exports in Benin increased to CFA Franc 147.15 billion ($257.26 million) in the first quarter of 2018 from CFA Franc 82.05 billion ($143.44million) in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Rwanda which ranked third on the Africa Visa Openness Index also attracted higher numbers of visitors, greater investment, and hosted more conferences due to the removal of travel restrictions. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council Economic Impact 2018 report, the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in Rwanda was RWF933.5 billion ($1.130 million), contributing 12.7 percent of GDP in 2017, and is forecast to rise by 6.8 percent in 2018.

Even Kenya, which stood at the ninth position on the openness index adopted a visa on arrival policy in 2017 and in the same year, the country witnessed a total contribution of Travel and tourism to GDP of KES769.1 billion ($7.433 million), 9.7 percent of GDP that same year. With the policy in place, travel and tourism to GDP are forecast to rise by 5.5 percent in 2018.

As African countries open the continent’s skies, promote free movement of people and build ties through free trade, visa-free travel/visa-on-arrival, Africans can begin to get creative, adopt proven working structrures from other countries that would promote development while attracting global investors and visitors.