Kenya goes visa-free for travelers – but there’s a catch

Home Kenya goes visa-free for travelers – but there’s a catch
By: visas / January 12, 2024

CNN — 

Traveling to one of Africa’s most popular destinations seemed to be about to get a lot easier in 2024 after the government of Kenya announced tourists would no longer need a visa.

And then people started reading the small print.

While many international visitors no longer need to buy a visa costing upward of $51, now almost everyone – including some countries whose citizens previously enjoyed free entry – must cough up $34 for an Electronic Travel Authorization.

The move has sparked blowback, with many taking to social media to voice their outrage. Some in the travel industry have warned it could have a serious impact on tourism at a time when the country is hoping to attract more visitors.

The new policy requires visitors to apply online at least three days before travel and pay the $34 as a processing fee.

Kenyan President William Ruto has advocated for a borderless Africa, urging countries to ditch visas and pursue the free movement of people and goods across the continent.

But since the new policy took effect in early January, people across the continent have taken to social media complaining it does the opposite.

When the ETA went into effect in the first week in January, Jones Ntaukira, a frequent business traveler from Malawi, expressed surprise at the move, calling it “hectic,” in a post on X.

The founder of startup power company Zuwa Energy told CNN that, for someone who frequently travels at short notice to Nairobi to meet with partners and investors, the new rules are an unwelcome obstacle.

“Now it means you don’t have that convenience, it’s gone, you have to plan four days in advance,” he said. “It’s not the $30 but I think it’s the process that you have to apply online and wait for three days and then submit documents. We didn’t have that before.”

Rules change for children

Others took issue with new requirements placed on children. Previously children younger than 16 from several countries did not have to pay for a visa.

Kenya’s tourism board hopes to attract 5.5 million annual visitors in the next four years. But critics of the new policy question what effect it will have on arrivals.

“The time you put into these things [applications], sometimes it puts you off –  you decide not to do something you would’ve done and you do it somewhere else or in a different way,” Ntaukira said.

“This is one of the harshest visa regimes in Africa now, and it masquerades as liberalization of travel,” said Sean Mendis in a post on LinkedIn.

Mendis, who describes himself as an aviation executive, added: “The long term will not be kind to Kenyan tourism.”

There were also concerns that the new system could have an impact on Kenyan travelers if countries currently offering them unrestricted access seek to impose reciprocal terms.

‘Fair, faster and reliable’

Kenyan authorities insist the ETA is a step forward for the country.

On Sunday, a statement from the country’s Ministry of Interior said its introduction was “premised on the need to have a fair, faster and reliable system that also addresses Kenya’s security and other strategic interests.”

Citizens from countries in the East African Community (EAC) regional bloc, who are exempt from ETA for the next six months, may soon also be expected to apply to travel to Kenya.

“EAC nationals will be issued with ETA gratis (free ETA)” Nixon Ng’ang’a, director of communications at Kenya’s Ministry of Interior and coordination of national government, told CNN. “We are currently developing the system to recognize various types of EAC documents used for travel within the region.

“Some of these [travel documents] are not International Civil Aviation Organization compliant. The six months period will be used to align regional interests and compliance with international travel protocols,” he said.

Muthuri Kinyamu, co-founder of Kenyan tour operator Turnup.Travel, says the roll-out of the new measures caused confusion after announcements that focused on the visa-free aspect, but overall it could have a positive impact.

“We are yet to see the effects of what it means in terms of arrivals or ease of travel to Kenya, but the spirit of it is to make the destination an open and accessible destination by standardizing the rates,” he said.

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