The East African Community (EAC) has singled out the introduction of a single tourist visa to the region, and the revival of an East African passport, as among the main priorities for the bloc in 2013, alongside the removal of non-tariff barriers in the aviation and tourism sectors.
According to the EAC Secretary-General, Dr Richard Sezibera, the issues have been causing major disappointments among the tourism industry, which has for long been struggling with the expensive image of East Africa, where visa fees for a family of four can run into Rwf634,000 if visiting all five member states.
"Such added cost are seen as a hurdle to promoting cross region safari packages and while Kenya permits the re-entry after obtaining an initial visa when visiting other countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi or Tanzania, none of the other countries is offering the same option to tourists," notes Sezibera.
He added that stakeholders have for long blamed bureaucrats for dragging their feet over technical issues like revenue sharing, which in view of the highly advanced immigration technology in place at immigration check points today is now seen as a mere excuse by some member states to slow down integration and prolong the existence of other NTBs in place.
The idea for a common visa was first floated from within the Ugandan delegation in 2001 at the East African Community Committee for Tourism and Wildlife, warmly welcomed and then buried under paperwork.
The EAC has been set up following the Treaty of establishment signed in July, 2000 by five partner states namely; the United Republic of Tanzania, the Republic of Burundi, the Republic of Kenya, the Republic of Rwanda and the Republic of Uganda.
Together, they had agreed on the formation of three major blocks namely; Customs Union, a Common Market, subsequently a Monetary Union and ultimately a Political Federation which will facilitate smooth transition towards economic and social integration.
The EAC Common Market Protocol, which came into force on July, 2010 has significantly set forth for the execution of the right to "Free Movement of Persons and Labour", and hence accelerate the need for the Social Security Annex (under negotiations) to ensure effective facilitation of workers' movement.
It is expected among other issues that the Social Security Annex will clearly stipulate the scope of social security benefits for migrant workers and their families.
Accordingly, free movement of workers in the EAC is seen as one of the mechanisms to curb the ever increasing unemployment trends facing the region.
However, unemployment is a very broad issue and an outcome of several factors, hence curbing it requires the interplay of several issues such as labour market, public finance as well as social-cultural contexts.
Former Kenyan tourism minister Najib Balala did early last year mince no words when he blamed dark forces within the EAC of obstructing progress in such crucial areas, and for few was there any doubt in which direction his remarks were directed. Time will tell if during the remaining 11 Â½ months of 2013 this long overdue task will be completed or dragged into yet another year.