Chaotic roll-out blights Kenya’s visa-free plan

Up until late November 2023, Kenya maintains strict visa requirements both for all foreign and African travellers to the country. But President William Ruto wanted to change the rules.

By description Kenya, at least, has a palpable difference in tourism features compared with its neighbours in East African Community (EAC), which is an intergovernmental organization composed of seven countries in East Africa. Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda enjoy, to a considerable extent, relative peace and stability in the region. Determined to ensure an increasing flow of tourists, travellers and visitors to Kenya, the government supports with consistency the tourism industry by adopting flexible rules and regulations.

Up until late November 2023, Kenya maintains strict visa requirements both for all foreign and African travellers to the country. But President William Ruto wanted to change the rules by announcement visa-free, first to show off his burgeoning dreams of transforming the economy, an important commitment towards improving the industry, a position that went viral on many social media platforms and across the world. 

It could also be described as an attempt to attract more visitors to the wild nature with vast surrounding forests and the fascinating geographical landscape. As I research and read through reports, Kenya is seriously addressing unique challenges and setting the stage for future. Kenya has seen a strong performance in tourism, with figures constantly rising. In 2022 for instance, Kenya’s tourism performance continued on a recovery path after Covid-19 pandemic which engulfed. International tourist arrivals were 1.5 million approximately which represents 70.45% increase as compared to 2021 arrivals of 870,500. 

The government continues prioritizing the promotion of regional tourism to enhance performance of the African markets. It focuses further on development of niche products such as cruise tourism, adventure tourism, culture and sports tourism. The development of niche products has a huge potential to boost competitiveness and the value of our tourism. Undoubtedly, tourism in Kenya is the second-largest source of foreign exchange revenue following agriculture.

The Kenyan highlands are one of the most successful agricultural production regions in Africa. The highlands are the site of the highest point in Kenya and the second highest peak on the continent: Mount Kenya, which reaches a height of 5,199 m (17,057 ft) and is the site of glaciers. Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 m or 19,341 ft) can be seen from Kenya to the south of the Tanzanian border. Besides these, the “Big Five” game animals of Africa, that is the lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant, can be found in Kenya and in the Masai Mara in particular.

→ What’s happening? Late last year, Kenya’s President William Ruto announced that Kenya would drop visa requirements for all citizens from around the world. The move was forecast to accelerate tourist arrivals to 2.5 million from 1.5 million in 2022 and boost Kenya’s tourism revenues by 200%.

→ How has this played out? The rollout of the new visa-free regime has been marred by confusion, lack of information, and complaints from travelers around the world.

→ How is it supposed to work? Kenya replaced visa applications with Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) for all travelers to the country, except those from within the East African Community (EAC). As of Jan. 7, close to 10,000 ETA applications had been received with 4,046 approved.

→ So what’s wrong with the new system? Prior to the switch, Kenya had visa free agreements with 51 countries, many of them in Africa. Visitors from these countries, who previously only needed their passports to enter Kenya, now have to apply for the ETA, including paying a $34 fee and submitting information including bank statements, hotel bookings, and flight details.

→ Who’s most concerned about this in Kenya? Players in the travel and hospitality sector are worried that the switch and the associated tedious process and costs may turn away tourists from Kenya as a destination.

→ What’s the government’s response? Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Julius Bitok said the new process had cut visa processing times from 14 days to 72 hours for the ETA, provided equal treatment for all visitors, and lowered visa application costs from $50 to $34. 

In conclusion and on a bit of politics and demography – population estimated at 51.5 million in 2023. On 13 September 2022, William Ruto was sworn in as Kenya’s fifth president after winning 50.5% of the vote. His main rival, Raila Odinga, got 48.8% of the vote. Kenya has close ties with its fellow Swahili-speaking neighbours in the African Great Lakes region. One advantage is that Kenya’s relations with Uganda and Tanzania are generally strong, as the three countries work toward economic and social integration through common membership in the East African Community. *With additional reporting from Martin Siele in Nairobi

Kester Kenn Klomegah
Kester Kenn Klomegah
MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.