‘Bait and switch’: Why Kenya’s no-visa policy is drawing pushback

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Nairobi, Kenya – In September, Thomas Danso entered Kenya to attend the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi by using only his Ghanaian passport and a yellow fever certificate. He did not need a visa.

But by January when the 34-year-old, who works as a project manager for an international nonprofit in Accra, returned for a three-day workshop, that had changed.

Ghanaian citizens, one of 51 nationalities that previously needed no visa to get into Kenya, now have to pay $34, submit flight and lodging bookings, then wait for 72 hours to get Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA). Only members of the East African Community (EAC) are exempt from the new visa regime, introduced this year.

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“We all seek a borderless Africa, but … [this] is an inconvenience for those who want to travel on emergency,” Danso told Al Jazeera.

In December, Kenyan President William Ruto announced a new visa regime in which no one from across the world would require a visa to enter the country.

His argument for scrapping visas to Kenya, a hub for tourism and nonprofit work, was that every human being historically has roots in Kenya’s Turkana County and that it was absurd for children of the soil to require authorisation to come home.

Seen in Kenya as the cradle of mankind, Turkana in the country’s northwest is rich in fossils dating back more than 100 million years. It is home to Koobi Fora, a paleoanthropological site and museum in Sibiloi National Park on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana and hominid fossils, famous internationally since Richard Leakey’s 1972 discovery of a 2 million-year-old skull of Homo habilis, an ancestor of Homo sapiens, or modern humans.

“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!’” Ruto said.

It was a speech that went viral.

The move was praised especially by social media users who said it would rapidly increase tourism on a continent where travel between nations is still cumbersome due to tough visa restrictions and other logistical challenges.

But then came the implementation of the policy, which has led many travellers to say the new visa policy, rather than ease travel to Kenya, has complicated it.

Young Maasai men wearing ceremonial headdresses made of ostrich feathers take part in the Eunoto ceremony in a remote area near Kilgoris, Kenya, on August 18, 2023 [Luis Tato/AFP]

‘Bait and switch’

Instead of visas, Kenya now has the ETA, which the government says was introduced to ensure security and get a database of all those entering and exiting the country. It has received mixed reviews.

Citizens of countries that had not needed a visa to travel to Kenya now have to pay $34 to $52 to secure authorisation to enter the country.

It is, however, cheaper for those who previously needed to pay more than the new ETA charges. Take Forouzesh Pietro, an Italian national, for example. He travelled to Kenya to see his family in Malindi this year and is loving the new ETA system.

“Mine was a single entry, and so it was also cheaper than the old system, where I would pay $50 to enter the country each time I come here,” he says.

But Pietro is one of only a few satisfied travellers.

“This is a complete bait and switch,” said Sean Mendis, an aviation executive based in Blantyre, Malawi, who called the new immigration programme “one of the harshest visa regimes in Africa”, saying it “masquerades as liberalisation of travel”.

Al Jazeera requested comments from Kenya’s Department of Immigration and Citizen Services but had not heard back by the time of publication.

Kenya Airways
Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 planes are seen parked at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport near Kenya”s capital Nairobi, April 28, 2016 [Thomas Mukoya/Reuters]

Policy vs people

Kenya is hoping to attract five million tourists annually, up from the 1.75 million recorded in 2023 and 1.48 million recorded in 2022, according to a report released last week by the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

Critics of the government said the no-visa regime is a smart ploy to hit that target and raise money for the billion-dollar tourism industry at a time when the country’s cash-strapped economy is still hurting from debt obligations and a depreciating currency.

In recent years, the cost of living has been on the rise, triggering deadly protests. New levies and tax increases introduced by the Ruto administration have been blocked in court, triggering a row between the judiciary and the president, who has promised to disobey some court orders.

A flood of tourists could bring in critical revenue for Ruto’s government.

“With the ETA system, we have been able to collect $1m in the last seven days, which is very impressive because this money comes from outside,” Julius Bitok, head of the Department of Immigration and Citizen Services, said on January 11 as he toured Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to assess the rollout of the ETA programme. “This is foreign exchange for the people of Kenya.”

While the government counts its quick wins, many Kenyans are worried about possible reciprocal measures from other countries, especially from the 51 states whose citizens previously did not need a visa nor an ETA to enter Kenya.

Geoffrey Ouma, a 48-year-old businessman based in Nairobi, says the ETA will cause those countries to panic.

“I don’t think Ruto thought of what Kenyans might start facing out there when we also start travelling. … It will only worsen the relationships we already have with other countries,” he said.

Others like Mohammed Hersi, a former chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation who backs the plan, said it needs tweaks to align with the bigger picture of easier travel on the continent.

“We are happy with it, but the mechanism is the issue that we need to deal with,” he said. “[It goes] contrary to the travel-free policy that we have been fighting for as Africans, even when you look at the African Union Agenda 2063, which is all about accessibility and movement.”

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