Days after the launch of the East African Community (EAC) single tourist visa, there are worries that Rwanda and Kenya could attract more tourists than Uganda, and further leave the country to play catch-up. Just like the Schengen visa for some countries in the European Union, one EAC tourist visa will allow tourists to enter and roam around Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. However, given that Uganda usually depends on tourists from the neighbouring countries, industry players are worried that the country could lose out more.
"People are expecting that with the single visa, we are going to grow the tourist numbers automatically," Amos Wekesa, the proprietor of Great Lakes Safaris, said. "For us to benefit from this arrangement, the government of Uganda must invest in marketing."
If Uganda does not do this, Wekesa warns, the single visa arrangement will benefit Rwanda and Kenya. This is reportedly because Kenya has the best air transport, with the renowned Kenya Airways and Jomo Kenyatta international airport, which receives 6.5 million arrivals annually. This is six times more than the number of arrivals Uganda's Entebbe international airport.
The single visa for 90 days costs $100, of which the issuing country is entitled to $40 while the others take $30 each.
"Even Rwanda's arrivals are growing tremendously because of the ownership of an airline," said Wekesa, a member of the Uganda Tourism Board.
"They are connecting visitors from West Africa and South Africa. At the same time, they [Rwanda and Kenya] have a stable marketing budget. Uganda, on the other hand, does not have a marketing budget."
Kenya invests about $20m in marketing their tourism industry while Rwanda spends about $5m annually. In comparison, Uganda's $300,000 looks less than peanuts. UTB Chief Executive Officer Steven Asiimwe, however, says the single visa presents an opportunity for Uganda to attract more tourists.
"It is now cheaper for a tourist to travel the entire region on one visa. Previously, a visitor had to pay at every point of entry, which was cumbersome and expensive," he says.
"We are going to promote East Africa as a single destination, which offers a tourist bigger products and richer experiences. East Africa is a huge community and there is so much to offer to a tourist. Kenya is not enough, Uganda is not enough. But with the three, you have a variety to offer to a tourist."
According to Wekesa, unless the three countries agree to a joint tourism fund where they pull resources together to market the region as a bloc, the marketing will remain an individual initiative of each country. And this may, in the long run, according to Wekesa, further fuel competition among the states on who can attract more tourists.
"The current arrangement is unsustainable because Kenya will begin to complain of how it brings the highest number of visitors but only takes an extra $10," Wekesa says.
"If Uganda doesn't up its game, this may not go far."
Geoffrey Baluku, the proprietor of Trek East Africa Safaris, is worried that the single visa will not ease the movement of local tour operators within the region.
According to Baluku, the arrangement is that a tour operator will only move the tourists within the boundaries of their country before driving them to the next border and handing them over to the tour operators of that country.
"We wanted all these non-tariff barriers to be removed too. It should be free for me to transport my tourists across East Africa," he said.