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On the occasion of a speech in Kigali, on November 2nd, Paul Kagame recalled his decision to abolish visas for all African citizens, following Benin, Seychelles, and Gambia. The move, aimed at boosting the national economy through tourism and investment, has been a significant step towards African integration, in line with the Free Movement Protocol signed by the African Union in 2018. During this speech, the President of Rwanda advocated for a "unified tourist destination" in Africa, where tourists could move freely regardless of the country or region.
Rwanda, a trailblazer for the continent?
Rwanda is often considered a driving force in Africa, initiating innovative and avant-garde policies. It was among the first countries to ban single-use plastics in 2008, establish a green bank (Ireme Invest), and become a hub for the digital economy (launching the Rwanda Innovation Fund in 2021). According to the Global Innovation Index 2022, it is the most innovative low-income country in the world, serving as a trailblazer in various fields. How does this translate to tourism? An important source of GDP, the government has pursued an aggressive and highly effective global communication strategy to boost tourism revenues. In 2018, the country signed a multi-year £30 million deal with the Arsenal football club. Experts estimate that this partnership could have generated up to £300 million in return. Rwandan tourist revenues also increased by 16.25% to reach $498 million between 2018 and 2019.
The promise of an Africa-wide tourism market
According to the 2023 Africa Wealth Report by Henley & Partners, the number of millionaires in Africa is expected to increase by 42%. by 2032. As wealth grows significantly in African societies, so too should domestic tourism across the continent. And the countries that create favorable conditions for African travelers should be the first to benefit. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Africa could generate $168 billion in revenue and create over 18 million jobs from its tourist industry. However, key issues such as visa barriers must first be addressed.
Progress remains slow
Rwanda’s pivot to African travelers is a trend that came to the fore during Covid-19, during which time many African countries focused on local and regional markets to compensate for the lack of international travelers. Having also pivoted towards East African travelers during the pandemic, Kenya, following Rwanda's lead, will abolish visas for all African travelers by the end of the year.
Nonetheless, despite most African countries signing the Free Movement Protocol mandated by the African Union in 2018, many are reluctant to commit to this broader dynamic. Concerns include the possibility that opening borders will lead to a massive influx of foreigners, potentially taking jobs from locals. Authorities also worry that inadequate systems for registering citizens and identity documentation could facilitate criminal and terrorist movements. While these fears are legitimate, the well-documented economic benefits of free movement of people should encourage other countries to follow Rwanda's example.