The government’s efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 by restricting international travel saw Kenya lose its position as one of the most welcoming countries in Africa.
Kenya slid 17 places to rank at 28 last year in the Africa Visa Openness Index (AVOI) which measures how easy it is for Africans to enter one of the 54 countries on the continent covered in the study.
This is the lowest score for Kenya since the index, published by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the African Union Commission (AUC) started in 2016.
Kenya’s best ranking at ninth position came in 2018 after President Uhuru Kenyatta implemented a visa-on-arrival policy for all Africans. A visa is a permit to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period of time in a country.
The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic to Africa in early 2020 saw Kenya and other countries introduce travel restrictions in a bid to slow down the importation of the respiratory illness from countries deemed to have relatively greater infections.
The latest ranking for Kenya, down from 11 in 2020, saw the country exit the list of the most welcoming places for African travellers and which is dominated by East African States.
The report, which relied on data collected between June and July 2021, found that Kenya had eliminated the visa-on-arrival policy and required citizens of 35 countries to obtain visas from Kenyan embassies or consulates before starting the journey.
In the previous year, Nairobi required citizens of only one unnamed African country to obtain visas in advance. The number of countries whose citizens could travel to Kenya without a visa was unchanged at 18.
“For the first time since the AVOI was launched in 2016, many countries backslid on their AVOI ranking over the year. For example, only nine countries offered visa-free access or a visa on arrival to all African visitors in 2021, down from 11 countries in 2020,” the publishers of the index wrote.
“Just under half of the continent’s countries –five percent fewer than in 2020 — offered visa-free access or a visa upon arrival to the citizens of at least one other African country. More Africans than before must now obtain a visa before travelling.”
The report added that in most countries, the newly restrictive measures are temporary and are largely meant to manage and contain the spread of the pandemic.
“They are expected to be removed once the situation normalises,” the report said.
The outbreak of the pandemic caused a panic globally, with governments of countries with relatively lower infections being pressured to limit inflows of travellers from locations deemed to present a high risk of spreading the disease.
Part of the travel barriers was the result of differences in strategies for managing the pandemic, with countries putting more effort to control the health crisis seeking to curb travel from less concerned States.
Some countries instituted a series of public health measures such as wearing of masks and reduced social interactions while others told their citizens to carry on as usual.
Kenya’s reversal of the visa-on-arrival policy saw it drop out of the most visa-open countries.
The report found that Comoros, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda were in the top 20 list last year.
Rwanda, for instance, was ranked sixth and Uganda eight. Seychelles got the top ranking of one, sharing the pole position with Benin and The Gambia.
South Sudan, Guinea and Djibouti shared the worst rank at 52 and were followed by Libya and Equatorial Guinea which were ranked together at 50.
The slowdown in deaths from Covid-19, coupled with vaccinations, is expected to result in the removal of travel restrictions that were initiated to control the health crisis.
Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that new deaths in Africa had dropped to 564 in the week ended February 21. Meanwhile, about 10 percent of the continent’s population has been fully vaccinated against coronavirus.
When Mr Kenyatta announced the visa-on-arrival rule in November 2017, he said it would promote free movement of Africans besides boosting integration and appreciation of the continent’s diversity. The report says that high visa fees and cumbersome applications are a major deterrent to travel in Africa, especially for businesspeople.
“A survey of one-third of countries spanning East, West, North, Southern, and Central Africa shows that visa fees, types of entry granted, and visa processing times vary widely,” the authors wrote. “These variations make it arduous for travellers to visit several countries on the same trip. Simplifying visa applications, reducing fees, and decreasing processing times are important reforms that countries can make to open their borders and ease movement across the continent.”
The average visa fee for Africans travelling on the continent is $63 (Sh7,170 at current exchange rates) while the range of visa fees is from $12 (Sh1,370) to $250 (Sh28,460).
The African Union has been leading efforts to ease the travel of Africans across the continent through several agreements expected to be implemented gradually over the years.
One is the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons in Africa that has been signed by 33 countries, including Kenya. The goal of the protocol is to have Africans travel without a visa on the continent.
Only four countries, however, have ratified it. They are Mali, Niger, Rwanda and São Tomé and Príncipe.
“This falls short of the 15-country threshold needed for the protocol to enter into force. We must keep working to liberalise Africans’ access to other countries, even as we continue efforts to issue an African passport —in line with the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation — to all citizens on the continent,” the report says.
Another initiative is the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) whose implementation will simplify and streamline regulation of the continent’s aviation, enabling more intra-African flights.
So far, Kenya and 33 other countries accounting for 75 percent of Africa’s passenger traffic have signed up to the SAATM.
“Of these, 10 countries are ready to implement the SAATM fully. Making it easier and quicker for Africans to travel to other countries, visa-free or with the possibility of obtaining a visa on arrival, will contribute immensely to regional connectivity on the continent,” the report says.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has been ratified by Kenya and 37 other countries, is also expected to contribute to the free movement of the continent’s people.
The agreement began on January 1, 2021, and has several goals, including liberalisation of five sectors: business services, communication services, financial services, tourism, and transport.
The index measures how open African countries are when it comes to visas by looking at what they ask of citizens from other countries in Africa when they travel.
It aims to show at a glance countries facilitating travel for citizens of other countries and how; whether they allow people to travel to their country without a visa, if travellers can get it on arrival, or if visitors need it before travel.
Data for the index relied on statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and countries’ official websites.
“The findings of the Africa Visa Openness Index can help countries drive policy reforms that will build resilience and strengthen Africa’s recovery,” Dr Khaled Sherif, AfDB’s Vice-President for Regional Development, Integration and Business Delivery, wrote in the report.
“By supplying readers with the latest data, the Africa Visa Openness Report will help Africans decide where to visit, where to do business, and where to invest. It will also show the African Development Bank’s regional member countries what areas require policy reform.”
The index also tracks changes in countries’ scores over time. This shows how policies are evolving regarding freedom of movement across Africa.
Future editions of the index are expected to analyse not only how countries are improving processing, cutting visa costs, and simplifying the process, but also the extent to which their visa policies match up to their visitors’ experience in obtaining and using a visa.
Kenya is among the countries that have made it relatively easier for visitors to obtain the document through an online application.