Governments have long used visas as a way of monitoring tourism and raising revenues. But will recent changes in regulations for some African regions help or hinder travel? asks Graham Boynton.
A mixture of consternation and joy is sweeping through the travel industry over the issue of tourist visas. A boon for government treasuries, an irritating added extra for travellers and, in some cases, an administrative nightmare for tour operators, tourist visas continue to evolve as international travel evolves.
Let’s start with the positives. Recently Zimbabwe and Zambia announced the introduction of a joint visa, so for US$50 tourists can move backwards and forwards between the two countries without requiring two visas. Zimbabwe’s tourism minister Walter Mzembi sees this as the first step in bringing in a single visa that would cover all the major southern Africa countries.
“We are doing what other progressive parts of the world are doing,” he said. “You enter one European country, you enter 28. We are saying this is the first little step toward the promulgation of a SADC (Southern African Development Community) ‘univisa’.” In fact this ‘univisa’ was first discussed more than fifteen years ago.
The East Africans have taken a similar view with the announcement of an East African Tourist Visa that covers Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, but not, significantly, Tanzania. It is clearly a step in the right direction. However it will affect only a small percentage of high-end safari clients, particularly Europeans. Although there will be a few wanting to visit both Kenya’s wilderness and Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, most of those who do two-destination safaris are likely to want to combine Kenya with Tanzania.
Now the downside. Despite the estimable Minister Mzembi’s declared dream of a SADC univisa, the biggest tourist destination in the region, South Africa, seems intent on making its visa requirement so stringent that it threatens to put foreign visitors off. From June, children under the age of eighteen visiting the country will have to carry an unabridged birth certificate, and if only one parent is accompanying the child then a sworn affidavit from the other parent will be needed.
Another regulation that comes into effect in June will mean that visitors from countries requiring advance visas – China or India, for example – will have to apply in person at a South African embassy or consulate in their home country. In these two enormous nations, which are expected to be South Africa’s big growth markets in the coming decade, this could mean taking flights to the nearest city just to apply for a visa. So onerous are these two requirements that a group of twenty airlines serving the country (including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air France) have declared the new regulations “a tourism, PR, economic and political disaster”.
Government interference in tourism isn’t the exclusive preserve of Africa – just witness the British government’s deadening APD (Air Passenger Duty) that mauls passengers travelling to and from the UK.
However in Africa there is rather more at stake in terms of jobs and wealth creation. Small gains in East Africa and across the Zambezi River may well be dramatically offset by the South African government’s damaging approach.
In fact, as a frequent visitor to Africa, I would suggest a moratorium on all visa charges, terms and conditions across the continent – and let’s see if the increase in numbers offsets the loss in visa revenues.
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Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveler, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (atta.travel). The views expressed in this column are his own.