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Can Kenya's new visa-free policy hurt tourism instead of boosting it?

Can Kenya's new visa-free policy hurt tourism instead of boosting it?
Ron and Barbara Dutna, from Oregon U.S., enjoy their first day of holidays at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday, Feb. 11, 2008.   -  
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Bernat Armangue/AP


In January this year, Kenya went visa-free for travelers across the world. This past December, Kenyan President William Ruto announced the decision to scrap visas for all tourists at the beginning of 2024.

The historic move to open Kenya's borders to travelers from around the world could spur the growth of the nation's tourism industry. Except there is a catch, one big enough to end up hurting the industry and the nation's economy instead of boosting them.

Inside Kenya's New Visa-Free Policy

Last year, during the 60th Jamhuri Day Celebrations in Nairobi, President Ruto announced there would be no need to get a visa to enter Kenya. The decision to make Kenya visa-free and open up the borders to the citizens of the world closely followed another one of the president's proclamations in Congo-Brazzaville in October last year. At that time, he first proposed the need for visa-free travel between African countries. He promised that Kenya would implement visa-free travel for all Africans by the end of the year.

In his speech announcing the latest landmark movement, President Ruto said, "It is with great pleasure, as president of this extraordinary country, to make a historic announcement of the decision of the Government of Kenya. Beginning January 2024, Kenya will be a visa-free country."

"It shall no longer be necessary for any person from any corner of the globe to carry the burden of applying for a visa to come to Kenya. To echo the call of the Turkana people to the world: 'Tobong'u Lorre!' Kenya has a simple message to humanity: Welcome Home!" he added.

That now iconic speech quickly went viral. It seemed that the nation was finally entering an era of globalization with a move that encourages steady socio-economic development.

Kenya's tourism industry could also use a boost. While many travelers have an African safari at the top of their bucket list, traveling to and through the continent comes with more than a few logistical challenges. A visa just adds to all the costs and paperwork. Netizens praised Kenya's bold decision.

That is, until everyone started noticing the fine print.

In his speech, President Ruto mentioned that the state had developed a new platform to identify and keep track of travelers coming into the country. While no one needs a visa to enter Kenya anymore, they now need an electronic travel authorization (ETA) from the digital site. An ETA is basically a simplified form of a visa, and it comes with a processing fee.

The ETA is technically for security reasons. It would help maintain a database of those entering and exiting the country. The process of getting the ETA is where it gets complicated enough to make even visas seem more accessible.

With the new ETA system, people from countries who didn't need a visa previously to enter Kenya are now required to pay between $34 and $52, just like everyone else, to enter the country.

Before the introduction of the policy, individuals of 51 different nationalities did not need visas. Now, they need to go through a tedious process that involves submitting flight details, proof of hotel booking, etc., before traveling. Then, they need to wait 72 hours to get electronic authorization to travel the country.

For all this to work, people need to know their arrival and departure dates way in advance to apply for the permit. The current system can create issues when people may need to travel in an emergency.

People from the East African Community (EAC) are exempt from the rules and don't need to go through the lengthy process of getting the ETA before entering Kenya. The new policy also benefits those who needed to pay more for visas before this.

Those who already have e-visas for East Africa travel do not need to apply for the ETA either. But nearly everyone else needs to bear the brunt of the blow. Even children under 16, who previously needed no visa to enter the country before, must pay to get an ETA.

The implications of this move may not just be limited to added paperwork and fresh costs, deterring travelers from visiting the country in the near future. There is a chance that the 51 nations who didn't need visas before — and others who got the short end of the stick in this deal — might retaliate. 

After all, Kenyans need to travel, too. The countries for whom traveling to Kenya just got way more difficult than it was before might ensure that Kenyans struggle while entering their states as well.

This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

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