Ethiopia recently introduced visa-on-arrival entry for all African citizens. The move will benefit business and contribute to African integration, but challenges will have to be overcome in order to reap the benefits.
Africans know all too well the hurdles of international travel. Talk to anyone travelling on a passport issued by an African country about visa bureaucracy and you will be showered with familiar stories of frustration.
African travellers and business people are compartmentalised by the rest of the world, making it frequently difficult for Africans to travel outside their continent.
New Zealand is some 11,000km from mainland Africa and has embassies in just three African countries, yet New Zealanders can travel to 31 African countries on a visa-free or visa-on-arrival basis.
The number of African countries whose citizens can travel to New Zealand with the same privileges is zero.
While Western embassies are frequently restrictive in issuing visas to Africans, the situation within the continent itself isn’t much better.
A citizen of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, would need 38 visas to travel the length and breadth of the continent.
The Seychelles and Benin are the only African countries that have visa-free entry systems for all African citizens; a further nine countries offer either visa-free entry or visa-on-arrival entry to all African citizens.
But other African countries have recently announced plans to liberalise visa requirements for citizens of other African countries.
The most significant to do so is Ethiopia, which has recently implemented a visa-on-arrival scheme for African citizens.
This move by Ethiopia’s reformist government carries a lot of weight. Because it is by far the largest and most populous country yet to make such an announcement, Ethiopia’s management of the scheme will serve as an example for sceptical African countries.
Businesses large and small stand to benefit from the visa-on-arrival scheme, which will help bring African investors to their Ethiopian counterparts while boosting prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of closer economic integration within Africa.
With African business visitors increasingly attracted to Ethiopia by the promised opening up of the banking and telecoms sectors, investors are likely to require easy access to their projects in the country.
But there are challenges that must be overcome for the programme to yield benefits. The first is logistical. One of the problems with intra-African travel is the lack of frequent direct flights between major cities on the continent.
Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest and fastest growing airline, seeks to connect the continent through its hub at Bole International Airport.
The airport has tripled its size and is now able to handle up to 22m passengers a year.
Ethiopian Airlines has already surpassed Emirates as the main conduit for passengers to Africa.
All this points to Ethiopia becoming a major gateway, but policymakers, airport authorities and the airline must work together to ensure that they deliver on this potential.
Another major draw is boosting tourism. Growth in tourism across the continent is increasingly driven by visitors from other African countries, according to a 2017 UN report on economic development in Africa.
Ethiopia hopes to welcome 2.5m tourists a year by 2020 and aims to become one of the top five tourist destinations on the continent.
However, if tourism infrastructure investment does not keep pace with the increasing number of arrivals, the country runs the risk of suffering from “overtourism”.
This can mean disruption to daily life, increased prices and degradation of tourist hotspots, leading to friction between locals and visitors.
Because the visa-on-arrival scheme coincides with increases in the capacities of Ethiopia’s national airline and main airport, the government must ensure that it can handle big increases in tourism.
While overtourism may appear to be a long way off for Ethiopia given the emerging nature of its tourism industry, planning ahead will help make the transition to mass tourism much easier.
Don’t overstay your welcome
Another crucial challenge is having a system in place that ensures visitors do not overstay their visas while allowing for necessary visa extensions – especially for business people – in a relatively convenient manner.
This is a delicate balancing act. The government needs tourists and business people to boost the economy, but the new system must command public confidence.
The more people who overstay their visas and reside in the country illegally, the more likely the visa scheme will be labelled a failure and used as a rallying cry by Abiy Ahmed’s anti-reform opponents.
Allowing visitors a way to conveniently change their visa status from tourist to resident by fulfilling certain criteria – for example being offered a certain type of employment – will prove useful.
This will enable companies to retain highly skilled workers, and will support Abiy Ahmed’s vision of turning Ethiopia into a continental economic heavyweight.
Easing the mobility of people, and thereby of goods, services and capital, can be a boon to any country. In Ethiopia’s favour are the second-largest population on the continent, a rapidly expanding national airline, enormous tourism potential and a government willing to try new things.
With 10% average GDP growth since 2010, the visa-on-arrival scheme, along with other planned projects under Abiy Ahmed, undoubtedly has the capacity to markedly boost the country’s economy.
Hakim Abdi, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University in southern Sweden.