With the launch of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), it is expected that flight schedules and routes will improve to the benefit of leisure and business travellers, not to mention that travellers will be provided with more choices and cheaper fares, writes David Desta (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Cornell University graduate from the School of Hotel Administration who has been working in Ethiopia with Kuriftu Resorts for the past several years.
One of African Union's (AU) most significant flagship projects - the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) - was launched this past month to fulfil the objective of the deregulation and liberalisation of air transport services between countries, similar to the European Union's (EU) single aviation market.
In 2015, the heads of states of the member countries of the AU adopted a declaration to establish SAATM, with 11 countries coming on board. Today, 23 member states have agreed to uphold the agreement. The initiative is a testament to the AU Agenda 2063 - a structural framework and transformational roadmap for a better Africa.
The African continent has, for over a decade, made efforts to liberalise its aviation industry. Most important of which was the Yamoussoukro Decision of 1999 that sought to deregulate Africa's air services and to promote regional air markets to allow transnational competition. Even though the implementation has encountered many challenges, its net effect on the growth of intra-regional air travel will be commendable.
The benefits of an open-skies policy - to create a free-market environment for the air industry - would not only increase intra-regional mobility, trade, and tourism but also lay down the path for continental integration and coordination.
Between January and July 2017, there was a 14pc year-on-year increase of international arrivals to the African continent, according to Forward Keys, a company that tracks and compiles air travel data. Their report also stated that more international travellers and airliners were flying into Africa than intra-African ones. This shows the need for a more integrated Africa.
The AU shares this belief that increased connectivity between countries and regional economic communities will help improve trade for landlocked economies and ignite a spark for intra-African tourism. Cross-border deregulation between just 12 African countries would create 5 million new passengers, 1.3 billion dollars in annual gross domestic product (GDP) and 155,000 jobs, according to a 2015 study by International Air Transport Association, an airline-industry group.
From a consumer point-of-view, leisure and business travellers hope that the SAATM will help improve flight schedules and routes, but most importantly, provide travellers with more choices and cheaper fares.
To this day, air transport is still more expensive in Africa compared to other regions. This is primarily due to high passenger taxes and excessive levies, such as airport fees, jet fuel tax, and excise duties. In Europe, one can book a flight with Ryanair or easyJet at favourable and competitive prices.
Many Africans would love the opportunity to travel around the continent, say Cape Verde or Morocco, without the need of going via Dubai or Paris for a tedious and lengthy connecting flight.
But even with open skies, the hurdle of obtaining visas still haunts many travellers. The time, cost, and process to get a visa to many African countries is frustrating and unappealing. To have the "free movement of people" and "seamless borders," as the AU Agenda envisions, a smoother visa facilitation process is required.
For example, if an Ethiopian national wanted to travel to South Africa, they would have to fulfil a wide range of requirements. They include obtaining a sponsorship letter, acquiring a valid aeroplane ticket, having sufficient funds in a bank account, and securing hotel reservations before finding out if they have been granted or denied a visa. These requirements are typical for most international destinations. However, a visitor from the United Kingdom or San Marino can visit South Africa for up to 90 days without the need for a visa.
The aspiration of having an African Passport issued by the AU by 2018 cannot come any sooner. This will allow citizens of African nations to travel throughout the continent at ease, without the need of a visa, like the Schengen Visa in Europe. As of this moment, Africans are required to have visas to enter 55pc of the continent's nations, whereas for 25pc, one can be obtained on arrival, and 20pc do not require any at all.
However, it is understandable why the African Passport dream is taking time to come to fruition. Many concerns need to be addressed by member states of the AU, primarily the control and security of borders, as well as, the ease of currency convertibility.
In all honesty, though, African borders are known to be quite fluid posing security threats as migrants are already crossing several nations to reach the Mediterranean coastline. And with many countries facing shortages of foreign currency, I seriously doubt that they will like to have the ever-inflating Ethiopian Birr sitting in their coffers.
The flipside of such fluidity will offer immense opportunities though. The tourism goals of the continent will provide an exciting potential for inclusive growth and sustainable development in Africa. The launching of SAATM and the upcoming African Passport will assist in increasing intra-regional tourism, expanding connectivity, and generating trade between countries.
Hopefully, in time, Africans will no longer be viewed as migrants, but as tourists within their own continent.
(Destadavid@gmail.com), a Cornell University Graduate From the School of Hotel Administration Who Has Been Working in Ethiopia With Kuriftu Resorts for the Past Several Years.