By Christopher Farai Charamba
Richard Mullin once said: “The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa . . . for he has so much to look forward to.” Over the past few years the global perception of Africa has been changing. The Africa rising narrative coupled with the positive growth rates in many regions on the continent have contributed to changing former negative attitudes the world had towards Africa.
A direct consequence of this changing narrative has been an increase in international tourists to Africa. In 2014, African Business Magazine stated that Africa’s tourism industry was the fastest growing in the world.
According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa’s tourism industry is set to spur more economic growth for the continent and directly employ 6,7 million people by 2021. In 2011, tourism in sub-Saharan Africa accounted directly or indirectly for one in every 20 jobs.
While there has been a marked increase in international tourists to the continent, it has always been a cumbersome process for Africans travelling within Africa to other countries. With flying too expensive and considered a luxury, a lack of proper road and rail networks between African countries has limited Africans in terms of exploring their continent.
Another hindrance has been the need to obtain a visa to visit other African countries and a lack of a common passport akin to the one in the European Union that would allow African nationals easier access to other African states.
This, however, has also begun to change. During his State of the Nation Address, Ghana President John Dramani Mahama stated that the West African country was opening its borders to African nationals who would now be issued with visas upon arrival in the country.
“With effect from July this year, we will be allowing citizens of AU member states to enter our country and obtain visas on arrival with the option to stay for up to 30 days and experience what our country has to offer. This measure, with time, should stimulate air travel, trade, investment and tourism,” he said.
Following this announcement, African Union Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma hailed this move by Ghana and was confident other countries would soon follow suit “in the interest of achieving an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa”..
Ghana has certainly moved in the right direction by opening up its borders to other African nationals. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that Ghana was the first independent African country and home to a pioneer of pan-Africansim on the continent, President Kwame Nkrumah.
The formation of the OAU in 1963 was done under a pan-African rubric; with the desire to co-ordinate and intensify the co-operation of African states in order to achieve a better life for the people of Africa.
This, however, has been difficult to achieve as travel to other African countries is by and large a difficult process. In the not so recent past travelling from one country to another would often have to leave the continent and fly to Europe before they flew to West Africa for example.
Aside from the massive travel costs, getting visas to other African countries was often more difficult for Africans than for an international visitor to the same country. The move by Ghana will certainly have a positive effect on their tourism industry as eased travel restrictions are an incentive for Africans to travel to other countries on the continent. The more people begin to travel the more likely that travel will also become cheaper.
While Ghana is certainly a pioneer in easing its travel restrictions for Africans it is not the only country that has shown a positive change in that regard. Zimbabwe recently relaxed its visa requirements by removing the need for visas for all nationals of sadc countries. Thirty-seven countries including Equatorial Guinea and Algeria were moved to friendlier categories such as Category B where nationals can obtain a visa upon arrival in Zimbabwe. As with the shift in Ghana, this move in Zimbabwe should be beneficial in terms of making the country a more favourable tourist destination and in attracting investors.
Another positive is the return of the uni-visa between Zimbabwe and Zambia. While negotiations are still underway this should be a positive achievement as it would make travel between the two countries much easier.
Should this be successful it is likely that it would be further rolled out to include three other countries in the Kavango-Zambezi region, namely Namibia, Angola and Botswana.
Such a coordinated effort between African states could become the cornerstone for achieving the aims of the pan-African ideology that the founding fathers of the OAU had and envisioned.
The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) stated that the introduction of a single visa within the region would facilitate the smooth entry and travel of regional and international visitors, especially within transfrontier conservation areas, and add an estimated three to five percent to annual growth.
The institute said the move would “. . . also allow business travel to occur more easily, boosting intra-regional trade”, which in Africa is the lowest level at 12 percent of total trade, compared with 40 percent in North America and 70 percent in Europe.
Not only is there a social value to Africans travelling to other African countries but there certainly is a considerable financial reward too. It is important that African Governments set up such policies that facilitate better business environments in their countries and in their regions.
While Zimbabwe and Ghana are making changes to their domestic immigration laws, the East African Community (EAC) this month launched a regional passport for citizens of certain EAC countries – specifically Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania.
The passport will come into effect in January 2017 and will allow citizens of those countries to travel internationally with the document rather than just regionally as they do now. This is a massive step in terms of integrating African countries and should serve as a pilot for other regions to follow.
While SADC has plans to move in that direction it will take massive political will by the leaders as well as adjustments to individual country policies that will then facilitate such mechanisms to be put in place.
There are genuine fears that come with opening up borders particularly in nations that consider themselves better off than their regional counterparts. The threat of war, smugglers and rebels in other countries is also a deterrent to such initiatives.
However while such threats are sincere the net benefit of integrating in such a manner particularly in more peaceful regions is immense. African nationals have the capacity to build not only their countries but also their continent together. However, this can only be made possible if Africans are exposed to and interact with each other.