By The Independent Reporter
The proposal to introduce the single tourist visa in the partner states of the East African Community (EAC) has been held back by poor Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure.
Shem Bagaine, the Chairperson of the EAC Council of Ministers, recently informed the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) in Kigali that poorly developed ICT infrastructure at the national levels to facilitate connectivity of the entry or exit points may delay the introduction of the single tourist visa in the five member states.
For the single visa to be issued, the partner states of Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi have to harmonise their visa issuing regimes and fee structures which they have not done.
Bagaine, who is also Uganda’s minister of state for EAC Affairs, was responding to a question by Isabelle Ndahayo, a member of EALA from Burundi who sought an update on the project after stressing that the EAC as a single tourist destination is among the key success factors for integration.
Bagaine said that the EAC Secretariat in Arusha, Tanzania convened a joint meeting between regional immigration chiefs and heads of tourism boards in March last year, in Moshi, Tanzania, to conclude a study on determining the region’s preparedness to introduce the single visa.
The meeting was also attended by technical experts from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda but Tanzania was not represented although it received the report “for consideration and conclusion.”
Bagaine said participants pointed out the challenges which may delay the rollout of the single tourist visa. They were informed that a mechanism for sharing the financial cost of administering the single tourist visa and sharing the revenue collected was missing.
Bagaine explained that considering the identified challenges, the introduction of a single tourist visa would now require a multi-sectoral approach as it is not confined to the immigration or tourism sectors alone.
“Therefore, this issue is part of the agenda of the next Meeting of the Sectoral Council on Tourism and Wildlife Management which is scheduled for June, 2013. Thereafter, it will be considered by the Council for a final decision on the way forward.”
Lawmakers’ plain irritation
MP Ndahayo, seemingly unsatisfied, probed, asking Bagaine to highlight what has been done on the requirement for Partner States to harmonise their visa issuing regimes and fee structures.
Bagaine said that the issue of immigration has figured a lot on the Council’s agenda as well as at the summit level and “some of the countries in the region have already passed [immigration] laws and, within that context, are looking at harmonising the fees for visitors in our region.”
“It was thought prudent that we should harmonise our fee structures and also reciprocate – if you are going to US and you want US$300, the US citizen coming to Uganda, should as well pay US$300,” Bagaine noted, adding that, however, there may be need to consider the fees with care “because we are the ones who need tourists to come to our region.”
MP Daniel Kidega from Uganda highlighted frustration over the fact that the single visa regime for East Africa is a matter that “is very old in this Assembly.”
Apart from warning the Council to critically analyse and scrutinise the experts or technocrats engaged by the Secretariat on the project because some could have “their own interests other than the region’s interests,” Kidega also asked Bagaine if the Council is aware of the “hostility which exists between some partner states in this sector of tourism.”
For example, he said the Assembly has heard before, that tour operators from Kenya, cannot freely operate in the same sector, in Tanzania.
Secondly, he questioned, “are we as a community, now doing expos internationally in this sector as a team, or we are still doing it separately?”
“I think that before we cut our coat so big, we should first cut it to our size and deal with what is manageable – like harmonizing those issues,” Kidega said.
Bagaine said he is aware of the differences in operations by tour operators in various partner states. It is because of this awareness, he said, that “we are looking at getting a single tourist visa to remove these differences.”
On the idea of a joint international expo as suggested by Kidega, Bagaine said this cannot be done “until we have brought together harmonised operations, laws and so on, and be able to have a single tourism visa, because we will be able to market our region as one instead of separate individual countries.”
Bagaine acknowledged that there was need to monitor experts who could possibly be undermining the regional effort.
MP Pierre Celestin Rwigema from Rwanda observed that the issue of a single tourism visa is very important for the bloc’s integration and that the way it is being handled shows how the integration process is very slow.
“The concerns or the challenges are not really as technical as some might want to believe,” he said, “They are political.”
Rwigema added: “I don’t even think that it is a matter of conflict of interest to say that our countries are competing on the matter of collecting fees but I think it is a matter of politics.”
Bagaine agreed: “We are actually dealing with politics and we cannot run away from politics because at the end of the day, these are the factors that will determine which way we will move.”
“All of us, including this House and other stakeholders must strive to campaign so that we harmonise our movements – as per certain protocols, laws, to develop a sense of belonging together and ultimately, achieve the objective set out in the Treaty establishing the East African Community,” Bagaine said.
MP Patricia Hajabakiga from Rwanda reminded the House that the 2009 state of EAC address by President Paul Kagame, in Arusha, requested that “we fast track the issuing of the EAC tourist visa” and the same matter was later echoed in Nairobi, during the 2010 state of EAC address by President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.
Hajabakiga noted that the Assembly has always gotten the same answers on the same question each time it was brought up.
She said: “Is it rocket science to deal with issues of ICT? Our customs authorities have already got a network! Other institutions have the network. We have been going to Europe to study what the EU has done. Can’t we even learn from them?”
Hajabakiga asked Bagaine to provide a timeframe for putting the matter to rest but the latter observed that timeframes cannot work.
“I don’t think we can put a deadline on an intricate matter of this nature that requires deliberate and careful discussions and persuasions amongst the partner states so that we can achieve the objectives,” Bagaine said, adding: “We will pursue this. We will not give up, and hope that at some future date, we can get positive results.”