For years, borderless travel has been a dream across Africa, with the potential to boost the continent’s growth. Yet, it’s still easier for foreigners to travel around Africa than it is for Africans themselves. Now, some African countries are taking bold steps to encourage borderless travel that could spur trade and economic growth on a continent in desperate need of both. After Kenya, Rwanda, and others, Ethiopia is now the latest African nation to join the bandwagon.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the nation will “very soon” follow Rwanda’s example, allowing all Africans to travel to the country without visas.

If and when the country implements this policy, Africans would be able to arrive in Ethiopia without prior permission. It will no doubt open up Ethiopia to African visitors, boost the country’s tourism potential and in the long run, its economy.

Prime Minister Abiy did not detail Ethiopia’s plan to allow all Africans to travel to Ethiopia without visas. The proposal is, however, a laudable step towards opening Africa’s borders.

The irony of Africa’s contribution to the world’s population

Africa is home to more than 12% of the world’s population. However, the continent only accounts for less than 3% of the world’s passengers. One of the principal reasons for this is intra-region visa restrictions. The Africa Visa Openness Index reveals how African countries remain largely closed off to African citizens.

On average, Africans need visas to travel to 55% of countries within the continent. While they can get visas on arrival in 25% of other countries, they can only travel to 20% of countries without visas.

It is a problem the African Union (AU) has, for the past 30 years, attempted to solve. In 2016, the AU even introduced a common African passport, with a goal to distribute them to all citizens by 2020.

Ethiopia Follows Rwanda’s Footsteps To Launch Visa-Free Travels For All Africans
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After Kenya introduced visa-free travel for Africans last year, the African Union lauded the initiative, calling it a direction the 54-state continent needs to take. For a continent whose leaders often speak fondly of “African brotherhood” and once pondered the idea of a United States of Africa, the visa policies of many countries for many years suggested little progress in implementing the continent-wide, visa-free ideal advocated by the AU.

At best, some African countries are slow at reciprocating. At worse, it’s a far-fetched issue for others.

Countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, Ghana, and Kenya have, however, tried to reduce visa restrictions. In early January, Rwanda announced a global visa-free entry for travelers from everywhere in the world, not just Africa.

Ethiopia Follows Rwanda’s Footsteps To Launch Visa-Free Travels For All Africans
East African Community Visa. Photo: Flickr/Rachel Strohm

Why the need for a visa-free Africa?

The benefits of increased mobility within Africa for Africans are multi-thronged. This has been demonstrated by African countries that have eased visa restrictions.

After adopting the policy, Seychelles, one of the few completely visa-free countries in Africa, saw an average 7% increase per year in international tourism between 2009 and 2014.

When Rwanda abolished work permits for East African citizens, its trade with Kenya and Uganda increased by at least, 50%. The country also saw a 24% increase in tourism arrivals. Trade with the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, increased by 73% since the implementation of the policy.

Africa’s tourism industry

Visa restrictions have broad economic consequences, notably for the tourism sector. Analysts expect the industry to grow at a pace of 3.3% annually. Tourist arrivals to Africa will grow at double that pace compared to advanced-economy destinations.

Across the globe, tourism accounted for 10% of the world’s employment in 2016. Visa openness underpins the continent’s tourism sector and can create many more skilled jobs. For the 60% currently unemployed African youth, this means a new job market, which also prevents local brain drain.

Ethiopia Follows Rwanda’s Footsteps To Launch Visa-Free Travels For All Africans

More visitors mean more hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and a growth in transport and entertainment sectors. Both urban and rural areas could feel the impact.

According to the Africa Tourism Monitor report, while Africa currently accounts for about 12% of the world’s population, it receives only about 3% of world tourism receipts and 5% of tourist arrivals. The report further says that visa requirements imply missed economic opportunities for intra-regional trade.

Visa policies are among the most important governmental formalities negatively influencing international tourism.

Prior to 2013, Mauritius required visitors to apply for visas before arriving, while Seychelles did not. This has led to a high gap in tourism growth. The number of tourists to Seychelles has grown by 7% yearly in the last five years. Mauritius has, however, remained almost stagnant. 

Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Emerging startups can drive technological advancements while a mingling of talented minds will promote innovation. While African startups continue to struggle for funding, tight visa policies in some states have, however, continued to scare investors. A retained talent pool and general ease of doing business will make Africa more attractive to foreign investors.

Former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama believes if African leaders offer their fellow African nationals visas-on-arrival, it will open up the continent for investments.

Ethiopia Follows Rwanda’s Footsteps To Launch Visa-Free Travels For All Africans
John Dramani Mahama’s take on visas-on-arrival

According to him, this will remove the hustle African investors go through trying to access visas when they want to visit other parts of the continent.

When choosing a new country to venture into, entrepreneurs usually consider the openness, ease of doing business, free movement of labor, goods, and services as key indicators. The ongoing integration in the East African community has seen many businesses that were initially based in one country expand into the others. For instance, many Kenyan-based banks have expanded into Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan because of the improved ease of doing business within the region.

While a visa-free Africa may pose some security concerns, there has, however, been no evidence showing how free movement of people has perpetuated terrorism. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been on the forefront saying that a few bad elements should not be used to restrict millions of good citizens who want to travel for leisure or business.

While Ethiopia isn’t the first African nation to introduce visa-free travels, it’s certainly not the last either. Over the years, these countries continue to remain a glowing example of what a unified region can achieve. The continent’s leaders must, therefore, open up Africa to Africans if they truly want to boost growth.




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