Although no visas are required today for West African citizens to travel from one country to another, major travel impediments remain. Air transport in particular, and transport infrastructure generally, remain, to date, the biggest challenges for travel and tourism development in Africa in general and for West Africa, in particular. Fortunately, major investments are underway to build ports and airports and airlines are being launched or re-launched, in some cases.
It’s a hassle to apply for visa, which takes time and effort. Initiatives like that of the East African Community would open the continent to both regional and international tourism. Besides, African passports ratified by the African Union this year, face the complexities of border control and a host of other implementation challenges that need to be worked through.
The solemn launch by African Heads of States of the Single Africa Air Transport Market in Addis Ababa last January gave a strong push to the materialization of the Yamoussoukro Decision that had been lingering for decades.
African nations were supposed to scrap visa requirements for all African citizens by 2018.
It was a key part of the African Union (AU) “vision and roadmap for the next 50 years” that was adopted by all members states in 2013.
But to date, Seychelles is the only nation where visa-free travel is open to all Africans – as well as to citizens of every nation – as it always has been.
South Africa appears to be the most visible representative of the continent’s visa double standard, remaining largely closed to other Africans but more welcoming to the wider world.
Citizens of only 15 African nations can travel to South Africa without a visa, yet holders of 28 different European passports can enter the country freely.
Not yet Uhuru
So, how is the continent faring? It is improving but is far from reaching its potential, according to a 2016 United Nations World Tourism Organisation report.
To date, some 26 countries have signed on, but an equal number have yet to come on board, and we hope they would soon join,” said Dr. Jose da Silva, Minister responsible for Tourism and Transport in Cabo Verde. “Yet from my direct experience as the Minister responsible for Tourism and Transport in Cabo Verde, I can tell you that on the ground things tend to move slowly through the bureaucratic maze to obtain landing rights in neighbouring countries.”
Fast-tracking bilateral deals
West Africa needs a faster track to process approvals so that the region’s airlines can fly to and from neighbouring countries, thereby facilitating regional mobility of Nigeria citizens and others who wish to visit the country.
It is often said that non-African airlines receive landing rights privileges far quicker than the country next door, notwithstanding the Fifth Freedom air traffic rights accorded under Yamoussoukro Decision and Single African Air Travel Market (SAATM). How ironic indeed!
Cape Verde’s Minister of Tourism and Transport, Dr. Jose da Silva in his keynote address at the West Africa Integrated Travel (WAIT) forum put together by Chief Executive Officer of West Africa Tourism Organisation (WATO) Ola Wright, held at the just concluded World Travel Market (WTM) held in London, said West Africa still appears to lag behind and even below the average growth rate of tourism development in the Continent.
“But we need not be discouraged. Rather, we must look at this phenomenon as an opportunity because there is only one way to go – Up”.
According to United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) data, International tourist arrivals grew six per cent in the first six months of 2018, compared to the same period last year, reflecting a continuation of the strong results of 2017.
Europe, Asia and the Pacific led growth in the January-June 2018 period, with arrivals increasing seven per cent in these regions. The Middle East and Africa also recorded sound results with five per cent and four per cent growth, respectively, while the Americas saw a three per cent increase during the same six-month period.
Notwithstanding, these robust tourism numbers from most of the regions, Africa tourism only grew by a mere four per cent. Only the Americas showed a slower growth rate, although we must keep in mind the base volume, which is indeed expressive, particularly in North America.
Of these, the West Africa sub-region registered the lowest numbers in term of travel and tourism. When talking about West Africa, we are referring to a very large sub-region of the African Continent with an estimated population today of over 385 million, spanning 15 countries, from small Cabo Verde in the far west, with just over half a million inhabitants, to giant Nigeria in the south of the sub-region with almost 200 million.
West Africa is a diverse patchwork of countries, ranging from massive deserts in the north to lush tropical forests in the south, and just about every terrain and climate imaginable in between. The flora and fauna of this vast sub-region of the African Continent create the backdrop and context of the myriads of its colorful inhabitants.
Whether inhabited by desert nomads in the northeast or peoples in the forest of the southern part of the sub-region, or the swelling number of millions of city dwellers, West Africans are diverse, rich in cultural traditions and lively peoples by nature.
Indeed, outsiders are generally astounded by the diversity of peoples and cultures, and the open friendliness of the West Africans they come in contact with. These are indeed the strong ingredients and rich stuff that bodes for the enormous potential for tourism development in West Africa.
Yet, only a minuscule number of the hundreds of millions of West Africans know much about other countries in the sub-region and still far fewer numbers have traveled from one country to another. As tourists in the sub-region, the numbers become infinitesimal!
“I am often struck by the awe on many fellow West African faces when they ask me where am I from and I say, Cabo Verde, Cape Verde or Cap Vert,” Da Silva, said. “Only the elites seem to have knowledge of the small archipelago nation, some 500 km off the West Coast in the Mid Atlantic. I sadly admit that we West Africans do not know each other well and have much to learn about how diverse yet how similar we are to one another in spirit and disposition”.
No one is arguing that tourism should be an unregulated industry, but often governments’ desires to regulate trumps common sense. All too often decisions are made so as to avoid a law suit or negative media coverage. Too many regulations are reactive to problems that are minimal while refusing to be proactive regarding growing problems. Often the desire to over-regulate puts tourism businesses in jeopardy and fail to help the consumer.