Beyond the one East African Community (EAC) tourism visa

Over five decades ago, in 1961 to be precise, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on a visit and during an address to the Canadian senate made a very salient statement about neighborhood, partnership an

Beyond the one East African Community (EAC) tourism visa

Over five decades ago, in 1961 to be precise, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on a visit and during an address to the Canadian senate made a very salient statement about neighborhood, partnership and the greater good. He said: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.”

It is JFK’s statement that I wish to analyze and relate to the partner states of the East African Community (EAC) that have been wrestling with the idea of positioning and packaging East Africa as a single tourist destination since 2006.

Before we even plunge ourselves into the intricacies of single EAC tourism destination, let us briefly look at the trends and blocs of tourism in Africa and elsewhere. The international arrival of tourists was around 980 million in 2011 and expected to hit a billion mark later this year. Of this, Africa registered 50 million arrivals compared to Europe’s 503 million, Asia’s 216, and Americas’ 156 million.

The arrivals translated into revenues where Europe takes a 45% share, Asia, 28%, Americas 19%, and Africa 3% (which is an estimated US$33 billion).

The above figures demonstrate that Africa as a whole still has a long way to go in attracting arrivals. What lessons do we learn from Europe and Asia?

A visitor to Europe, with a Schengen Visa, can visit 25 member countries, for a maximum stay of up to 90 days; using that single visa, saving him/her the hassle and expenses. Travelers there are encouraged to go shopping, sight-seeing and spending in any of those 25 states.

Just recently, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprised of 10 member states, agreed to the introduction of a single visa for non-ASEAN visitors and free visas for the residents of ASEAN member nations. They are doing all this to tap into the growing Indian, Japanese and Chinese potential tourists. Indian arrivals alone to the ASEAN region stood at 14 million in 2012. As a country in Rwanda, we also have the biggest number of visitors from the region and this is not surprising and personally I cannot wait to use my ID to cross over to other EAC countries – but this is another chapter for another article.

Anyhow, let me come back to the East African Community (EAC) single tourism destination. First of all, we ARE one and the world out there views us as one. This month alone, we have seen personalities like the Chess Grandmaster of all times; Garry Kasparov visit Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda in three days to establish a strong presence of Chess in the region, and the famous Conservationist from the UK famous for her work with Chimpanzees; Dr. Jane Goodall, was in the region, visiting Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda and DRC going back and forth in less than a week. Not surprisingly she visited national parks which are actually trans-boundary hence linking us through our borders. It is quite clear that visitors want to maximize their stay in the region in ONE trip. We should therefore consider ourselves a Community and position, package, raise the region’s profile and market what endowments we have to the global consumer as one bloc.

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On this very issue, we should not be held hostage by issues like revenue sharing complexities from the Visa fees as some have argued. We stand to gain much more in revenues as a matter of fact: An entry Visa to the EAC costs an average of US$50. A typical foreign traveler spends an average of US$200 a day and may stay for about 5 days. So, should we allow a mere US$50 (US$30 for Rwanda) bar us from obtaining a bigger return of US$1,000 simply because of the initial visa fees? This is a fee that we can as well completely waive because of the utmost assurance we shall have gained from the bigger recompensing tourism revenues at the national balance sheet.

As region, I believe we have been more reactive; tourists chose us. We have not aggressively beckoned them—from the traditional visitors of the occident to the emerging markets of the orient. If the ASEAN attracts 14 million tourists in one year, how can we, as EAC, for example, raise our visibility among the Chinese and Australians and attract at least 15 million tourists?

Of course it takes more than the visa issue; and that is the discussion here.

Marketing, positioning aligning strategies, policies and raising profile among the potential global consumers is a very key element if we are to achieve our growth goals. Tourism Boards of our respective EAC member states should advise their governments about positioning tourism as a key economic driver, for the more we delay this single tourism destination, the more we delay the opportunities and potentials tourism has in turning around our economies. Should we wait while other economic blocs around the world have so far taken some giant strides?

Year on year, we spend vast sums of taxpayers money running competing tourism campaigns among EAC states which may, and can, cause resentment and mistrust, amongst them and potential consumers. But having a single marketing platform, like the East African Tourism Platform launched last year, can create a bigger impact; reduce the duplication of efforts and resources.

The EAC Single tourism destination should have been implemented by July 2012 but unfortunately has been delayed by factors that we can easily address. It is now that we have to work on the comprehensiveness and universality of our tourism industry as EAC, create destination loyalty and brand with much fluidity and pliable acceptance. We can’t stay traditional when everyone reading on the international thermometer is reading otherwise. We cannot deny history, geography, economics and necessity their chance of blending into and fortifying our growth.

The words of John F. Kennedy have never rung truer for the EAC, we are neighbors, our shared history has made us friends, and our economic aspirations make us allies not foes.

The author is Rica Rwigamba, hear of the Rwanda Development Board Head of Tourism and Conservation and a council member of the International Coalition of Tourism Partners.

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