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More Freedom, Fewer Visas, Please

With the rise in consumerism on the continent comes more business opportunity. But prospective business investors are growing more frustrated with the multiple visa applications and expensive travel.

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There was one issue at the Hotel Investment Conference Africa (HICA) that had everyone shaking their heads. The big question was: why isn’t there one visa that can get you across Africa? Its lack is choking business and progress.

If you have ever wondered why travelling in Africa is often so expensive and painful—blame it on rigid government policies.

Even though it makes business sense, the idea of a visa that will get you across many borders is as far away as a single currency in Africa, or Europe for that matter.

They call it the UNIVISA—the passport to an entire region—but not even the SADC region (Southern African Development Community) has managed to get one, the conference in Durban heard.

In 14 years there have been many talks, but no fruit. In that time, North Africa has seen three revolutions, East Africa has forged an economic community and Mozambique has built a gas industry.

The first countries which took up the gauntlet were Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. South Africa—the most powerful country on the continent—has joined in, but hesitancy all round is leaving the industry frustrated.

According to Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa’s Minister of Tourism, the issue is close to being settled with merely a few countries—which he could not disclose—still needing to sign the agreement. He said that 80% of the countries were for it. Fernando Sumbana, Mozambique’s Minister of Tourism agreed.

There is more business travel than ever on the continent, so why is it still so difficult to navigate Africa? It is cheaper and simpler to fly to London than it is to Addis Ababa.

Elize Petersen, Namibian Airways’ Manager of Government and  Protocol Relations, says government process is very slow when it comes to expanding regional routes. Allan Moore, CEO of Board of Airline Representatives (BARSA), says getting politics out of aviation is not easy as government policies are rigid.

When it comes to accommodation it is even worse. Hotels are scarce and expensive. Investing in new ones is often prone to fears over political instability and the high cost of infrastructure.

“Expanding out of South Africa is not easy, it is expensive, but it is not impossible. It is a different environment,” says Graham Wood, Managing Director of Tsogo Sun.

South African economist, Chris Hart, says if Africa was an easy place to invest, people would have done so years ago.

“Political risk in Africa is coming down and rising in the western world. Difficult obstacles are not nearly as bad as uncertain ones,” says Hart.

It is a sign of the times that Lonrho Hotels, which has hotels in Botswana, DRC, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, are also stakeholders in a Kenyan airline.

“Hoteliers are more optimistic than airlines, aviation is not moving fast enough [and] we want to boost regional business travel,” says Ewan Cameron, Lonrho Hotels CEO.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is likely to be the absence of a UNIVISA. Last year there were reports that a SADC UNIVISA would be established by 2013. Most people at this conference hoped there would not be subsequent reports predicting 2020.

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