Eye on West Africa


There’s been a lot in the news recently about the new visa regime implemented by South Africa, and the negative impact it’s having on visitor numbers, acknowledged by both the Tourism Minister and the Ministry of Home Affairs. “The government needs to ensure a balance between national security and growth in tourism,” said the Tourism Minister according to one online report.

‘National Security’ is used frequently to defend what, in my opinion, is mostly an indefensible system.  I’m not talking specifically about the South African situation, enough has been written about that already. I’m referring to the visa system in Africa generally, which has a damaging impact on tourism flows.

Yes, there are national security issues and yes, every country has the right to monitor and refuse entry to anyone, but that’s not what the visa system achieves, and often not what it is about.

Here in West Africa, the holder of a passport from an ECOWAS country can travel visa-free within the Community, as well as to Chad and Cameroon. Even simpler than having a passport, a national of one of those countries can apply for, and easily obtain, an ECOWAS laissez-passer, an ‘internal passport’, simply by providing proof of nationality.

So, a Nigerian national can travel without any hassle to Cameroon, but not to neighbouring Gabon.  Visas for Gabon are only issued in Abuja and, like the new South African system, you have to apply in person. 

Senegal has just abolished visas for foreign visitors, in an effort to revive its tourism sector after the impact of the 2014 Ebola outbreak from which it suffered, not due to any direct effect from the virus, but because of proximity.

As a foreign national with residency in Nigeria, I have to apply for a visa for several countries in the ECOWAS region, some of which can be obtained by my PA in a matter of hours, while others take several days and require me to travel to Abuja to present myself in person.  Why is that?

Nigeria and South Africa seem frequently to have arguments about various issues, which often translate into a problem for one country’s nationals being granted a visa to the other – never admitted, but politically-motivated. The reason sometimes given in these situations is that “we have run out of visa stickers”!  I was told that there are piles of South African passports in the Nigeria High Commission in Pretoria, ‘waiting’ for a Nigerian visa. Talk to hoteliers in Lagos and they will tell you that they often get cancellations from South African guests at the last minute, because the visa hasn’t been issued in the timeframe promised, or at all.

It’s crazy. It is not about national security. Checks are rarely done to determine the  desirability or risk of the individual making the visa application. So what is it about?

Bloody-mindedness, bureaucracy, money and politics, in my opinion. And ignorance. Ignorance of the fact that international travel creates jobs, brings foreign exchange and investment, increases trade, and fosters good relations.

Money is often the main reason for requiring a visa, with the visa fees one of the main sources of revenue for the diplomatic posts issuing them. I remember the case of an African post in the UK actually giving false information about visas, stating that they could not be obtained on arrival, and had to be applied and paid for in London – they needed the money.

I travel around Africa a lot (38 countries so far), and in many countries, particularly in East and Southern Africa, I get a visa on arrival, by paying as requested. I have no objection to that system, but I do object to it being called a visa. It’s not a visa, it’s an entry tax.

What’s so special about Senegal, that they can abolish visas altogether? The answer is that they realise that increasing visitor numbers is good for the economy, good for the people of the country, and good for the politicians.

The solution? Well, here’s one. Turkey, a country with as many security issues as any African nation, has increased its tourism from around 2.5 million visitors in 1985 to over 30 million today. For some nationalities, they charge an entry tax, payable at the counter on arrival. They say they will abolish that system soon, and for nearly all nationalities, you apply and pay online for an e-visa. If you have a Schengen, UK or USA visa, your visa request is automatically granted, on the basis that since those countries have already done the checks required, why should Turkey have any concerns? It takes about five minutes to get through the application process, and download the visa. Instant gratification, the same as buying the air ticket, booking a hotel room and other components of the travel experience. It works for me and my Nigerian family, every time.

Kenya has implemented an e-visa system, but you have to wait at least two days for a result. They’re on the right track, but they have a way to go before this system travel to the country hassle-free.

Trevor Ward
CEO: W Hospitality