How sustained improvement on visa openness impacts intra-African travels, exchanges
If you consider the fact that Africa receives a mere 4.8 percent of the over one billion tourist arrivals in the world and 3.3 percent of the receipts, it means that the continent is not at the heart of the global tourist market, despite being taunted as the last tourism frontier of the world today.
The worst is that intra-African travels have not performed well until recently, when some concerned African countries, corporations and tourism thought-leaders started making concerted efforts at growing tourism on the continent, starting from within.
The worry for most of them is that for the 1.4 billion people in Africa, (based on latest United Nations estimates of 1.425, 078, 203), less than 10 percent travel within Africa for tourism, while the continent received over 45 million international visitors in 2022, almost double of 19.4 million in 2021 and about 65 percent of its pre-pandemic visitor numbers, UNWTO barometer.
However, the efforts at growing tourism within are yielding results with improvements on intra-African travels as captured in the 2022 Africa Visa Openness Index report.
The 2022 Africa Visa Openness Index (AVOI) report, released last December in Mauritius, revealed sustained improvements on visa policies across Africa, particularly progress in freedom of travel policies by many countries last year.
The feat is a welcome development, which in turn, is soaring intra-African travel.
The visa openness report, an annual publication, prepared by the African Development Bank Group in collaboration with the African Union Commission, tracks visa policies adopted by African governments on three main criteria: whether entry to citizens from other African countries is visa-free, if a visa on arrival can be obtained, and whether travellers are required to obtain visas ahead of traveling to other African countries.
According to the AVOI report, in 2022, 93 percent of African countries maintained or improved their score on visa openness relative to 2021; while two-thirds of African countries have adopted more liberal visa policies compared to six years ago.
The above, in practical terms, means that more Africans travelled round the continent in 2022, despite the lingering impact of the pandemic, almost till the last quarter of 2021.
But while African travel was more open to African citizens in 2022, with fewer restrictions, more people were encouraged to travel with visa-free and visa-on-arrival options, which were not available years ago.
Of course, Benin, The Gambia and the Seychelles made the most impact in the AVOI report 2022 with their generous visa-free entry to all Africans visiting their respective countries, while Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia, made the most progress in their visa openness, but did not issue free visa.
Though just three countries out of 54 on the continent offer visa-free, it is an improvement from just one country that opened borders to all African countries in 2017.
While more countries are yet to follow the Benin, The Gambia and the Seychelles examples, there is an improvement on the offer of eVisa with 24 African countries offering eVisa, reflecting about five more countries than five years ago.
As well, visa openness is gaining more tractions as 36 countries improved or maintained their index score since 2016, 50 countries have maintained or improved their index score relative to 2021, 48 countries out of 54, now offer visa-free travel to the nationals of at least one other African country, while 42 countries offer visa-free travel to the nationals of at least five other African countries.
But it is not impressive that lower income countries account for a large share of the countries that make up the top-20 ranked countries in 2022 with liberal visa policies as this trend implies that Africa’s top economies such as Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa are still restricting African visitors from entering their countries.
If not for tourism, most Africans will not visit Benin, The Gambia and the Seychelles, which offer visa-free entry, but the many going for business, MICE, and holidays across the big economies will have to face visa challenge, a development that poses huge challenges to intra-African travel.
Despite the attitude of some big African economies towards visa openness, the African Union thinks the feats of the 2022 index are worth celebrating, while attributing the improvements to key developments like the AfCFTA.
“This edition links free movement to the development of regional value chains, investments, trade in services and the AfCFTA. There is greater recognition that human mobility is key to Africa’s integration efforts,” Monique Nsazabaganwa, deputy chairperson, African Union Commission, said.
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The African Development Bank Group attributed the feats in the 2022 index to supportive and enforced visa policies.
“This year’s edition, the seventh, shows many African countries having greatly simplified their visa regime over the past year,”Marie-Laure Akin-Olugbade, acting vice president in charge of Regional Development, Integration and Business Delivery, African Development Bank Group, said.
Also impressed with the 2022 index report, Jean-Guy Afrika, acting director in charge of the Regional Integration Coordination Office, African Development Bank Group, disclosed that the continent has returned to a level of visa openness last seen just before the pandemic began.
Corroborating the visa openness index report, African Airlines Association said local airlines had exceeded their 2019 pre-covid operation levels on international routes by 2.28 percent, meaning some have opened new domestic and international routes because of improved visa policies adopted by more African countries.
Again, ForwardKeys, United States of America airline web traffic firm, shows that Africa’s -19 percent international inbound arrivals recovered faster than the global average of -30 percent in the last quarter of 2022 due to many factors, especially improved visa openness to many countries outside Africa.
According to UNWTO data, Africa is showing resilience and has recovered about 65 percent of its pre-pandemic visitor numbers following a more than doubling of international arrivals from 19.4 million in 2021 to 45 million in 2022.
In his views, Opeyemi Adigun, a destination manager and hotelier, noted that the improvements in visa openness cannot be achieved without technology as technology is the backbone of the e-Visa system.
He urged for sustained improvement and updating of the system to reduce time of processing and eventual issuance of the visas at the entry points.
But no matter how fast a country fast-track the ease at which travellers can cross her borders, Adigun noted that eVisa should be far cheaper than the normal process, to encourage more people to use it.
“To sustain the improvements on visa openness, African countries should shorn middlemen and agents like VSF, reduce cost, time of processing, and encourage more applicants for eVisa applicants,” he concluded.