• Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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How visa restrictions pose threat to Single African Air Travel Market

Tech trends shaping air travel in Nigeria

The Single African Air Travel Market (SAATM) holds the promise of seamless air connectivity across Africa.

However, the dream of unrestricted travel within the continent faces a significant challenge, visa restrictions. Despite 34 African countries ratifying the SAATM agreement, visa restrictions have persisted, thereby hindering the full realisation of the benefits of the agreement.

It is also important to understand the reasons behind these bans or limitations. Across Africa, various factors contribute to the imposition of visa restrictions, ranging from diplomatic concerns to security considerations.

Some countries impose visa restrictions to control the influx of visitors and prevent illegal immigration, while others cite security threats or concerns about individuals overstaying their visas.

In addition, incomplete visa applications, insufficient funds, invalid passports, and incomplete documentation are common reasons for visa rejections.

In light of this, aviation and travel experts have highlighted the impact of visa restrictions on SAATM.

According to Africa Visa Openness Index 2023, only four African countries – up from three last year, have eliminated all visa requirements for African travellers. They are Rwanda, Benin, The Gambia, and Seychelles.

In 28 percent of all intra-Africa travels, African citizens do not require a visa (an improvement from 27 percent in 2022 and 20 percent in 2016). A visa is still required in 46 percent of travel scenarios on the continent – down from 47 percent in 2022 and 55 percent in 2016.

Sindy Foster, aviation analyst & principal managing partner of Avaero Capital Partners, in an interview with BusinessDay, emphasised the importance of freedom of movement within Africa. She noted that unequal and unfavourable visa regimes limit the benefits of SAATM, making it easier for non-Africans to travel within the continent than for Africans themselves.

“Without freedom of movement of people across Africa and with unequal and unfavourable visa regimes between African countries, the full benefits of SAATM will never be achieved, unlike in the European equivalent in which freedom of movement for Europeans is enshrined, it is often easier for a non-African to obtain a visa or visa-free entry into African countries,” said Foster.

Lending his voice, Toni Ukachukwu, founder of Aviators Africa, stressed the economic implications of visa restrictions. “I don’t see why Africans should require a visa to visit another African country. It is limiting the growth and GDP of Africa for travel, tourism, and trade,” Ukachukwu said.

He highlighted the case of Rwanda, which has removed visa requirements for all African countries, as a model to emulate.

Speaking to BusinessDay on the reasons for these restrictions, Ukachukwu pointed out that countries have different reasons for visa restrictions, like diplomacy and immigration. But one significant reason that stood out, especially in Africa, is to restrict people with criminal tendencies from entering and to make sure people leave when their visa ends.

He noted the need for African countries to strengthen their immigration and security systems while lowering visa barriers to promote travel, tourism, and trade.

Ukachukwu added: “Now Seychelles, which has visa-free entry for every African country, recently had an issue with Nigeria and they said they are going to restrict Nigeria from coming to Seychelles.

“This is because some Nigerians were caught with drugs in Seychelles, late last year. These are some of the issues where countries will want to reform their visa status to say okay we want to restrict it. However, visa restriction is not the way to go for economic development or economic emancipation of the African economy. To grow African GDP, we must at the very least lower the barriers of our visa restriction and increase our security architecture.”

While progress has been made, with several African countries improving their visa openness index, challenges remain. Allen Onyema, chief executive officer of Air Peace, called for a level playing field in the implementation of SAATM.

He highlighted the need to address exorbitant airport charges and ensure fair treatment of African airlines to fully realise the benefits of SAATM. “SAATM has been skewed to the detriment of Nigerian airlines. This is unacceptable. SAATM will only work for everyone if we remove restrictions,” Onyema added.

Also speaking on this subject matter, Humphery Geiseb, Namibian high commissioner to Nigeria noted the importance of collective efforts in addressing the challenges of SAATM.

He called on African leaders to support seamless travel within the continent, citing Namibia’s efforts in granting visa waivers and visa on arrival to enhance travel to the nation. Geiseb said, “Namibia is in support of SAATM, but we want African leaders to address the shortfalls to encourage seamless intra-Africa travels.”

On her part, Susan Akporiaye, national president of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), emphasised the need for innovative solutions to unlock economic potential in the travel industry. She highlighted training programmes aimed at enhancing members’ skills and income streams.

“In a bid to unlock the economic potential in the trade industry, I have led my members through a series of training for innovation and on new streams of income,” Akporiaye said in an interview.

Despite the challenges, there is optimism for change. Ukachukwu, who doubles as the founder of Walk for Love Africa, called on the Nigerian government to lead by example by implementing a free-visa policy for Africans visiting Nigeria. He noted the need for Nigeria to show leadership in promoting intra-Africa tourism and trade.