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Kenya ETA: President Ruto’s vision of visa-free entry proves tricky for some

Kenya’s President William Ruto was celebrated last year when he announced his country would be going visa-free for African visitors, but many have been surprised by the new requirements, which have introduced fresh costs and paperwork for some.

Adio, a Zimbabwean citizen living in Germany, was not anticipating any issues at Bremen airport when he arrived for his flight to Kenya earlier this month.

But at the check-in desk he was asked to show a document saying he had permission to enter Kenya.

“We had a short argument at the counter. I insisted I didn’t need one,” said the 33-year-old who works in the tech sector.

Had he travelled a week earlier, Adio would have been right.

Nationals of Zimbabwe, along with more than 40 other countries including several from Africa, were previously able to arrive in Kenya, get a stamp on their passport and enter without paying.

‘Visa-free is not visa-free’
So, when Kenya announced it would be visa-free for everybody from 1 January 2024, Adio thought the same rules would apply.

“Once I scanned my phone to find the new details on entry into Kenya, I then realised visa-free wasn’t really visa-free at all,” he told the BBC.

He spent the next few hours frantically going through various agencies to fast-track the new application process, which cost him around €150 ($160; £130).

By the time the documentation came through, he had missed the first leg of his flight.

Like others, Adio was under the impression that Kenya’s new visa-free policy would ease travel.

But under new rules, travellers must get an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) every time they enter Kenya.

The ETA is for single entry and is valid for 90 days. It costs $30 and takes up to three days to process.

Only citizens from countries in the East African Community (EAC) are currently exempt.

Documents needed to get an ETA include flight details and proof of a hotel booking.

“For people like myself, it is inconvenient. Before, we could come to Kenya without needing anything,” said Adio.

Kenyan immigration lawyer Davis Nyagah believes that the ETA is essentially a “visa under another name”.

“From a legal perspective, there is no difference between an ETA and a visa. The only difference is that Kenya will no longer put the visa sticker in your passport,” he told the BBC.

He wondered whether the blanket introduction of the ETA for everyone – with the exception of those from the EAC – was a way to “equalise travellers”, replacing an older system that saw countries categorised for entry.

There may also be a revenue-raising element as all visitors must now pay $30 every time they enter. Previously travellers could pay $50 for a multiple-entry visa that could be valid for several years.

There is nothing unusual about the introduction of ETAs – for example they are used by the US, Canada and Australia, and the European Union will soon be requiring them. But other visa-free countries in Africa, like Rwanda, do not require any authorisation prior to arrival and there is no cost to enter for the large majority of travellers.

Rwanda said it had experienced a 14% increase in African visitors a year after removing visas in 2018. It used to cost $30, but now people can come for up to 30 days without paying.

But for Kenya there is a security element to the new system.

Salim Swaleh, press secretary for Kenya’s government, told the BBC that the ETA was necessary for vetting travellers.

“Terrorism is one of the global threats at the moment, so we need mechanisms to ensure everyone who is coming to Kenya is [not a risk] to the country,” he said.

Kenya has been targeted by al-Shabab jihadist militants from neighbouring Somalia in several notorious attacks.

But when it came to the effect that the ETAs could have on tourism, Mr Swaleh thought that they would have no long-term impact and the government had projected that visitor numbers would increase with the new system as it was ultimately easier to use.

This debating of the bureaucratic details is a far cry from the enthusiasm that greeted President Ruto’s original remarks about visa-free entry last year.

“It is time we… realise that having visa restrictions amongst ourselves is working against us,” he told an international conference in October.

“We have visa regulations left, right and centre. When people cannot travel, we are all net losers,” Mr Ruto said to applause.

“Teething problems’
The move was hailed as part of a pan-African vision of frictionless movement and trade on the continent.

Economists have said easing travel restrictions is necessary for the African Continental Free Trade Area, which aims to create a single market in Africa. There has also been the vision of creating a single African passport.

But now some think it might be Kenya that could lose out with its increased demands on many African travellers.

“Ease of travel is extremely important to attract tourists and business,” said Anthony Mveyange, a economist and public policy expert based in Kenya.

“So, I think this could hurt the Kenyan economy in the short to medium term in different ways.”

Kenya’s government spokesperson, Isaac Maigua Mwaura, admitted to the BBC that the ETA had “teething problems” but said that they will “smoothen with time”.

More than 60,000 applications have been processed so far and the service can currently handle about 5,000 requests a day, he added. When it comes to countries where there had previously been a visa-free arrangement – such as with Zimbabwe – “there will be a review after the initial roll out”, the spokesperson said.

Expensive and complex visa requirements have long been barriers to commerce.

By the end of 2022, only just over a quarter of journeys between countries within the continent by Africans could be undertaken without a visa, according to the Africa Visa Openness Index.

However, researchers say that things are moving towards easier freedom of movement.

Several countries including Ghana and South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda introduced bilateral visa-waiver deals.

While Angola introduced visa-free entry for 98 countries, including 14 African nations.

Four countries – Benin, Rwanda, Seychelles and The Gambia – are now visa-free for African nationals.

However, there is a long way to go.

Thirty countries still require the citizens of more than half the countries on the continent to obtain a visa ahead of travel.

Libya, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, South Sudan and Egypt are some of the states with the strictest visa requirements.

From Adio’s perspective, much more needs to be done.

“Now that I am living in Europe’s Schengen Area, the only time I know I have entered into another country is when I receive a welcome text on my phone.

“But in Africa, often, no matter how small the country is, there is still a long process to go through.

“We need to do better.”

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