Towards a visa-free Africa
Harare – The global tourism industry generates approximately US$1.3 trillion annually. But Africa only contributes four percent of this.
A number of factors – from poor communication links, sub-standard transportation facilities, and too few internationally-rated amenities like hotels – have been identified as some of the weak links that have contributed to Africa failing to generate more revenue from tourism despite having abundant and unique attractions.
For example, the Niagara Falls at the border of Canada’s Province of Ontario and the US state of New York generate approximately US$30 billion in revenue annually. At the same time, the grander Victoria Falls shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe pale into insignificance in terms of the money they bring in.
In addition to the above factors, the strict visa regimes – especially among African countries – have made it more difficult for tourists to move around the continent.
These restrictions on travel recently prompted Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to call on Africa to work urgently towards the creation of a UNIVISA.
The call was made at the recent UN World Tourism Organisation General Assembly co-hosted by Zimbabwe and Zambia in Victoria Falls and Livingstone, towns that lie either side of the Zambezi River.
“The current situation where Africa only has a four percent share of global tourism revenue in spite of its massive natural and cultural tourism resources is a matter of great concern to us,” President Mugabe said.
“There is no way Africa can increase its portion of the global tourism cake without first promoting intra-African travel. Indeed, connectivity of African cities, regions and attractions augurs well for growing Africa’s share as it serves ultimately to integrate the African tourism product and its marketing and promotion, which in turn makes it more attractive to the long haul traveler than is the case now.
“It is very critical for Africa to evolve strategies that effectively lure tourists to the continent.
“The type of seamless border between Livingstone town and Victoria Falls town that has been put in place for purposes of this conference should become the rule rather than the exception for all adjacent touristic border communities throughout SADC and ultimately throughout Africa.
“Africa can only benefit from increasingly behaving like a single common market.”
UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai, said it was imperative to make it easier for people to move around Africa.
“A destination can never be a successful one if it is difficult to access it by air, train, road and car. The issues were discussed in the first ministerial meeting as well as general debate and all the outcomes will be compiled for action to be taken,” Dr Rifai said.
The 27 members of the European Union have a single visa and this has made it easy for people to move around the bloc.
There were good signs that the Southern Africa is moving towards this ideal at the UNWTO General Assembly.
SADC ministers responsible for tourism had a round- table discussion on the sidelines of the General Assembly and reaffirmed their commitment to establishing the regional UNIVISA.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Walter Mzembi, said at policy level, SADC had in general shown its commitment to opening up borders to facilitate tourism but lamented what he termed “bureaucratic inertia”.
“The problem is on implementation and again we state what we want to see as politicians, the guys who draw us back normally are the bureaucrats and essentially what we want to see going forward is more and more of these statements at the highest level .
“What President Mugabe said … was a very fundamental statement to say that ok you have opened the borders between Zambia and Zimbabwe for this UNWTO, why cannot this happen every day?
“If a president says that he is basically telling you to start moving immediately. We don’t want to see us regressing to the pre-UNWTO General Assembly days when these borders were closed for certain people between certain hours, or people cannot move because there is no facilitation for free movement.
“Otherwise the bureaucrats and their systems are slowing down the process. It’s bureaucratic inertia that is at play here,” he said.
Southern Africa is driving the UNIVISA vision through the Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa.
It is anticipated that introduction of the UNIVISA in SADC will stimulate tourism and employment creation and thus boost economic growth and development.
The region’s UNIVISA project is in line with the spirit of the SADC Tourism Development Protocol and the Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons.
SADC members resisted the 1995 Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, and it was eventually replaced by the 2005 Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons. However, it is yet to come into force because several countries are yet to ratify it.
According to the SADC Treaty, for a Protocol to come into force, it must be ratified by at least two-thirds of the bloc’s membership.
To date, about half of SADC’s 15 members have ratified the Protocol of Facilitation of Movement of Persons.
The Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons has as its main objectives the progressive elimination of obstacles to movement of people in the SADC region by facilitating visa-free entry, residence and establishment in any member state. Although the maximum period per year for visa-free entry will be 90 days, it provides for visitors to apply for an extension and applicants for residence permits will have their documents processed expeditiously.
Africa’s eight regional economic blocs have in recent years stepped up efforts to make it easier for people to move freely within their regions, but in many instances the political will is lacking as countries say they do not want to compromise their national security and trade interests.
ECOWAS (West Africa) has gone the furthest in improving mobility thanks to its Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and the Right of Residence and Establishment.
The Protocol provides for freedom of movement, a common passport and the right of residence in any country within the bloc. Citizens of West Africa can settle in any country without a visa. According to the Southern Africa Migration Project, “ECOWAS passports have gradually replaced national ones and border procedures have been progressively upgraded.
“In (the) West Africa Economic and Monetary Union area, a national identity card is sufficient for border crossings. In order to facilitate mobility of people across borders, ECOWAS’s travellers cheques have been designed and the goal of creating a common currency by 2020 has been set.
“National legislations, work codes and investment that prevented foreigners from participating in certain economic activities have been aligned with sub-regional and regional treaties in order to ensure the rights of migrant workers in host countries.” The East African Community has also made headway, but the introduction of a common visa for citizens has been stalled by the absence of the technical infrastructure to implement it.