The headlines this month that the M23 Rebel outfit of the Democratic Republic of Congo are ready to put down arms has provided a huge boost to the East and Central region. However, another much less reported piece of good news actually came at the World Travel Market expo in London.
It was announced that Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda have agreed a joint tourist visa, opening up all three countries to visitors, much like the Schengen visa system in Europe. Sadly the visa does not yet include Tanzania, which means visitors will now have to pay extra for the Tanzanian leg of their East African safari, but hopefully this will change in the due course.
On the face of it, this is great news for tourists, making visitors' lives easier and saving them some hard-earned dollars while they travel through this amazing region. The bigger picture could be much more life-changing, however, as this set of policy initiatives has potential to increase employment, stimulate the economy and ultimately change the prospects of local people for generations to come.
The cost of the three-country visa will be around $100, which will save each visitor about $30 and a lot of hassle. This might sound like small change, but in reality this is the cost of a night in a good B&B or a few nice meals in the region, and the extra spending money would be extremely welcome at thousands of small businesses.
For the past three years, the World Bank has repeatedly stated that tourism in Africa is growing at a very good rate compared to other regions, and that "Africa has the potential with its cultural and natural resources to outpace other regions in attracting valuable tourism dollars." Leveraging tourism has clearly been recognised as the key to economic development and job creation in the region, and new visa move should amplify the effect and reach of the economic stimulation.
Kenya is already one of the most popular destinations in Africa for tourists, currently attracting around 1 million visitors each year, but with ambitious plans to grow that to 3 million by 2015. Whether it is for a short business trip or a two week safari, each of these visitors to Kenya also has the opportunity use two or three days to make the short trip to Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a gorilla trekking expedition.
For a country like Uganda, whose annual marketing spend on international tourism is reportedly less than $1m, there is a huge opportunity to attract visitors cross-border. However, if the country wants to really maximise the benefit trickling down into the fabric of the economy, it had better start reinvesting tourism revenue into smart ways of promoting the country or risk being outshone by its neighbours.
Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities of Uganda Hon Dr Maria Mutagamba said, "We are proud to invite our future tourists to experience a more accessible eastern Africa region. Visitors to our region will benefit from the new, more convenient multi-nation visa and will see the improvements in security, immigration systems, infrastructure and capacity building that this system brings." However, tourism doesn't just happen, so it remains to be seen what strategy the country will be taking to attract their share of visitors.
Most importantly, there will be a greater need than ever for all tourism stakeholders in East Africa to put people and the environment at the heart of their plans. Focus on short-term profits would be a huge mistake at this point, and the longer it takes tourism leaders to realise this, the worse things will get.
A great deal of work has been done in the area of conservation, but tour operators should start seriously considering how to make the local people feel like they are getting their share of the whole tourism pie. Only when we can do this will our conservation efforts be truly effective, as often the locals know exactly who is guilty of poaching wildlife and abusing the system, but they do not think these things matters as they don't feel a part of the bigger picture.
As an African I am proud that governments are taking steps to open the door to show visitors some of the amazing sights we have to offer, and there has never been a better time to visit Africa than 2014. I just hope governments and travel companies recognise the opportunity and use it to make a lasting, life-changing difference to millions of people.