Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda have broken new ground when the long expected visa-free travel for expatriates living in any of the three countries came into effect last month. The easing of the travel bureaucracy manifests itself in several ways, most notably that passports are no longer stamped on exit and entry but an Interstate Pass is now issued serving as a supplementary document to the passport.
While one is well advised to ask for this method of travel at the immigration exit point, immigration officers, when the request is made, quickly reach into their drawers and pull out the card, which once filled in, is then stamped on exit from one country and entry to the neighbors, doing away with the page gobbling past method of entry/exit stamps and visa stickers. This card needs to be kept with the passport until the visitor has returned home, but by and large it is now possible to save as much as US$200 for a family of four when visiting the Kenyan beaches, or US$120 when traveling to the “Land of a Thousand Hills” to see Lake Kivu or hike across Nyungwe Forest.
Kenyan hoteliers are confident that combined with progressively lower airfares between the three countries, this new measure will help them to tap into a market segment which in the past often shunned visits to the Kenya coast and rather went further abroad, at times with even lower airfares and, of course, no visa required for most expat nationalities when visiting the Gulf countries.
Upcoming travel shows in the region are expected to give renewed focus to attracting visitors from across the three countries to travel the region, be it for weekend visits to the capitals or for a short getaway to the beaches. City visits in particular are likely to become more popular, and the travel trade and service providers will be challenged to offer attractive packages for foodies, sports fans, and adventure seekers.
“Opening up like this is a great opportunity to tap into the expat market segment. Besides the annual leave, they often have local leave days, too. They will not make up, of course, for the loss of tourists from abroad, but at least we can diversify. We have flights from Kigali to Mombasa and hope that one day we will again see direct flights from Entebbe to Mombasa. The main thing is to make travel easier and cheaper. The locals can travel with their ID, and the expats with the new passes. Mombasa has a wide range of hotels on and off the beaches. From budget to luxury, the choices are endless,” said a regular Mombasa-based source before adding, “If Jambojet can only start flights from Nairobi to Entebbe or to Kigali, travelers can then connect in Nairobi for Mombasa like four or five times a day. That should make for some very good package prices.”
What is now left to accomplish for the regional tourism stakeholders is to bring Tanzania on board of this arrangement to fully open up the East African Community (EAC) for travel once again, with a common tourist visa for visitors from overseas and the Interstate Pass travel for those living in the EAC. Burundi meanwhile can take stock of the impact of their recent decision demanding visa in advance of travel as visitor numbers have already taken a hit and are expected to decline further.