Dark days ahead for Burundi economy and tourism

Burundi’s economic growth, last year still standing at over 4.7 percent, to a significant part aided by a sharp rise in tourism receipts, is now in free fall. Tourism has been made all but impossible when, in order to keep unwanted journalists and human rights activists, supposedly posing as tourists, out of the country, the regime halted issuing visa on arrival. This happened shortly after regime leader Nkurunziza launched his – largely seen as illegal – bid for a third term in office, a move which has since the sham elections earlier this year set the country also on collision course with its immediate neighbors.

Burundi, part of the East African Community (EAC), is by rotational principle due to take over the chair of the EAC but other countries – Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda – have already held talks in camera over fears that international development partners will cut aid to the EAC and the Secretariat in Arusha, should Nkurunziza be elected as chair.

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The four countries are in a dilemma, as much of the Secretariat’s budget is financed by external aid, compounded by Burundi’s failure to pay their annual dues for now two years running. The EU and other countries have already pronounced their stand on Burundi when halting aid to any project which involves this country, leaving the EAC with the stark choice of excluding the violence-riddled country from many activities.

The manhandling to the EAC Secretary General, Dr. Richard Sezibera, two weeks ago, inflamed the already strained relationship between the regime and the other EAC members even further, triggering active moves to have Burundi’s rotational presidency taken over by another country. Here in particular is a compromise taking shape that the new Tanzanian President, Magufuli, may take over the mantle from his predecessor for another year, giving Burundi time to sort itself out or else face potential suspension from the group.

For 2015, with tax revenues dropping by staggering percentages in Burundi, and in the absence of tourist dollars coming into the country, a GDP contraction of as much as 8 percent is expected, adding economic hardship for the country besides having to cope with constant violence, much of it inflicted by the regime on its opponents.

Relations with Rwanda have also suffered with hardly any traffic crossing into Burundi any longer, following a series of arbitrary arrests of Rwandans by Burundian security and open allegations that have been made that the manhandling of the EAC Secretary General was entirely based on the fact that he is a Rwandan national. As a result, Burundi will very likely also lose the opportunity to nominate the next Secretary General, also done on rotational basis, as the other members are no longer willing to accommodate the Burundian regime’s shenanigans.

Meanwhile, hotels are said to be struggling with a sharp drop in visitor numbers, and tourism businesses have all but closed down due to lack of clients as the Burundian diaspora is now shunning their own home country for fear of being targeted. Much of the occupancies at Bujumbura’s lakeside resorts was attributed to such VFR, short for Visiting Friends and Relatives traffic, which, together with remittances, has now taken a break.

The development is a textbook case of how a country governed by a rogue regime can destroy an otherwise viable tourism sector singlehandedly, and while no tourists have come to any harm, this is largely due to the fact that literally none are left visiting the country.

Airlines, too, are said to be closely monitoring the situation vis-a-vis their seat capacity with some ready to consolidate flights should load factors continue to drop further.

And as final sign of the state of the Burundian tourism sector, only 11 posts were made since April on their Facebook page, most in fact about World Tourism Day at the end of September and only two since then about a reduction in visa fees – not that the latter will make one iota of difference in raising visitor numbers until the fundamentals, like visa on arrival and most important a secure peaceful political environment have been restored. This compares to multiple daily posts under the reign of former Director General Ms. Carmen Nibigira, when their site was a beehive of activity and hugely interactive with the key stakeholders in the East African region.