Across a Continent: Travelling in Africa as an African

Small planes are used to ferry travellers between African countries
Small planes are used to ferry travellers between African countries | © Melanie Van Zyl / Culture Trip
Photo of Andrew Thompson
Freelance Writer - January 2019

As the world’s second largest and most populous continent, Africa’s diversity makes it a fascinating place to visit.

Many African countries are starting to capitalise on the continent’s increasing ability to attract visitors from Europe and the United States. But, ironically, Africans themselves find it easier and more cost-effective to travel abroad than within their own continent. There are several factors behind this anomaly, however the main hindrance to intra-African travel is currently strict visa conditions and a dearth of reasonably-priced and direct flights.

African tourist numbers are increasing

Africa’s tourism numbers are slowly increasing. Events including terror attacks in Egypt and Tunisia, and the Ebola outbreak in 2014 have had an impact on the entire continent’s tourism numbers. But now research suggests that inflow numbers are increasing across the board, despite these localised occurrences.

Many African countries are also particularly confident of what they can offer an international clientele. Take, for example, Rwanda’s controversial US$37.8 million sponsorship of English football club Arsenal, that President Paul Kagame claims will pay for itself in increased tourism.

The Arsenal sponsorship is also an indication of where many African tourism boards are putting their emphasis. According to one study by the United Nations, most tourists in Africa come from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, rather than the African continent itself.

Fisherman on Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda | © Leah Feiger / Culture Trip

Flying between African countries is expensive and inconvenient

Internal flights within the continent are also costly. Although low-cost airlines have popped up in some African countries, most of these only service domestic routes or those that are highly profitable.

Many routes that seem logical – like that between Lagos and Kinshasa, two of the continent’s biggest commercial capitals – require at least one connecting flight, and tickets can easily fetch prices of more than $1,000.

Although the same issues will face international tourists looking for internal flights, capitals of European countries that have strong colonial ties to Africa often offer discounted airfares.

Flights from Brussels, London, Paris and Lisbon to the continent are typically cheaper than flights that originate within the continent – even though the distances from Europe are often longer.

North Africa also benefits from its proximity to Europe – low-cost airlines such as EasyJet, Corsairfly, RyanAir and Jetairfly offer discounted fares to select destinations such as Morocco, Tunisia, Cape Verde and Egypt.

Small planes are used to ferry travellers between African countries | © Melanie Van Zyl / Culture Trip

Visas make it difficult for Africans to visit their own continent

Although the decision to focus on western tourism markets may be primarily influenced by economic factors, it’s surprisingly harder for many Africans to travel to tourist destinations within the continent than it is for Europeans and Americans.

One of Africa’s biggest economies and a leading tourist destination, South Africa, serves as a good example of the complexities of visa requirements and intra-African travel. According to a study by Henley & Partners, South Africans can travel to just 31 countries on the African continent without obtaining a visa prior to departure. Countries like Japan, Brazil, New Zealand and Slovenia all have access to more African countries without having to obtain visas before departure, while U.S. citizens are best placed to travel to Africa, with access to 38 visa-free countries.

According to the Visa Openness Index, at least half of the continent requires visas to travel internally. Of the remaining 50 percent, half can obtain visas on arrival, and the remainder can travel without any visa.

Despite a commitment by the African Union in 2013 to create a new passport that will allow for ‘borderless’ travel, this has yet to be realised. Most African countries still require visiting citizens from other African countries to attain a visa prior to departure.

Most African countries still require African citizens to acquire a visa | © Agus Dietrich / Unsplash

Visa free (and e-visa) African countries are making it easier

These difficulties mean that many African citizens with the means to travel choose to do so abroad, rather than explore what their own continent has to offer.

Although visa requirements are also stringent for most Africans wishing to travel outside of the continent, direct flights and competitive airfares to the Middle East, Europe and the United States mean it’s often easier and cheaper to travel there than to nearby African destinations.

But, in spite of the slow progress, many African countries are starting to see the benefits of offering visa-free travel to other Africans. The Seychelles was the first country to drop all visa requirements for African countries, and others like Ghana and Ethiopia are set to follow suit. Ethiopia had already initiated an e-visa process in June 2018, and in a statement in October, president Mulatu Teshome said that the country would soon lead the way in issuing visas on arrival to all Africans.

According to the 2017 Visa Openness study, the most open countries in Africa that require no visa, or allow visas on arrival, include Seychelles, Benin, Rwanda, Togo, Guinea Bissau and Uganda, and yet only Seychelles and Benin require no visa for an African visitors.

Some African countries are also getting in on the e-visa revolution, which allows travellers to apply online quickly and easily. Currently, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe have some kind of e-visa process currently in place, with more African countries set to follow suit in the coming years.

Still, the African Union is optimistic that its dream of borderless travel across the continent will soon become a reality. Though even if visa requirements relax, there are still several hurdles that will continue to make travel within Africa difficult for Africans.

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