By Håvar Bauck
Recently, a business contact of mine was planning a three-day stopover in Nairobi on his way to Tanzania.
Unfortunately, because of delays in the visa process, he ended up cancelling the Nairobi visit and instead extended his stay in Tanzania. Those three days could easily have brought Kenya US$1,000 in foreign currency spent on hotels, restaurants, taxis, tourist attractions, and shopping. Instead, that revenue went to Tanzania.
While this example is not unique, the underlying problem can easily be addressed. This represents one of the simplest opportunities for the new Ruto administration to boost tourism.
Until 2021, people could choose between applying online in advance and getting their visa on arrival. Those who planned their trip well ahead could choose the convenience of the much faster e-visa counter, while those making last-minute travel decisions would still enter the country at the cost of queuing for a little longer.
In 2019, Kenya welcomed an all-time high of 2,000,000 international arrivals. In 2021, the figure was 870,000. With destinations around the globe fighting tooth and claw for their share of the world’s tourists, measures that deter potential visitors are hardly the best way to support a travel and hospitality industry still recovering from Covid-19.
Unfortunately, the Kenya e-visa requirement puts off potential spontaneous first-time guests and frequent travellers alike.
With 12 tedious pages to fill online, regular visitors already find themselves dreading the Kenya visa application process. Stringent file format requirements when uploading documents also create a nightmare for the less technologically inclined.
To make matters even worse, the approval process has slowed considerably since the visa-on-arrival option was removed. Where less than a year ago, travellers could count on getting their visas in a matter of hours, people now find themselves having to change travel plans when visas are not issued on time.
Defenders of the current system argue people who really want to come will do what it takes. Maybe, but that is not what tourism promotion is about. A lot of travel decisions are on short notice, and that favours destinations with simple visa policies. Kenya used to be one of those.
Couples or groups of friends craving a break from the colder climates of their home countries might easily want to jump on an irresistible last-minute deal with a flight departing the next morning. Kenya is no longer among their options. The same goes for the business traveller connecting through Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), who might want to stop over and party in Nairobi or bask on the Diani beach.
For people who run multinational business operations and who constantly travel, the e-visa system has become a headache. Many of my friends and acquaintances in that category now consistently postpone their trips to Kenya because of the tiresome visa process.
They may still eventually visit, but less frequently than before. Many of these ultra-frequent travellers are high-net-worth individuals, so we are talking about considerable amounts of potential tourism revenue lost.
The complexity of the e-visa system has also given growth to online “service providers”, claiming to offer a simpler application process. At an additional cost, of course. Some of these middlemen have done a good job optimizing their sites, so they come on top of the Google search results when people enquire about visas to Kenya. I know of several cases where visitors have been tricked into believing that such sites are official and that they are dealing with the Directorate of Immigration Services. In one case, the agent charged five times the official visa fee of US$50!
On a global scale, Kenya is still a small tourist destination. Even on a continental level, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and South Africa share more than half of the continent’s arrivals among them. All these four countries offer visa-free access or visa-on-arrival for citizens of their main source markets.
Neighbouring Tanzania still offers the on-arrival option. That now puts Kenya at a competitive disadvantage.
In 2021, the world as a whole saw 415 million international tourist arrivals. While that figure is set to more than double in 2022, the situation is still a far cry from the 1.46 billion global tourist arrivals in 2019. Competition is fierce, as every country wants its share of those arrivals. Kenya should not assume it is doing people a favour by allowing them in.
Kenya has much of what it takes to become a globally competitive tourist destination. With its modern infrastructure, the country has the capacity to receive many more tourists. The favourable investment climate means any increase in demand would easily trigger new investments in accommodation, attractions, and tourist services.
Demand is, however, the most crucial factor here, and with the current visa regime, Kenya faces an unnecessary barrier that limits the growth potential of a key engine of the country’s economy.
An easing of visa policies could be implemented in a matter of days and would provide an immediate boost to Kenya’s tourism competitiveness. Bringing back visa-on-arrival would be a major improvement. Visa-free entry for citizens of the main source markets even more so.