Iron out chinks in ETA to facilitate smooth flow of visitors

The first batch of travelers that used the Electronic Travel Authorization system to come to Kenya without Visa queue for scrutiny at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on January 05, 2024. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

One of President Ruto’s greatest gifts is the ability to translate rhetoric into meaningful action. But it is also his Achilles’ heel particularly when such action appears to be counterintuitive. Take, for instance, the replacement of visas granted to foreign visitors with the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA).

A visa is an official document issued by a government and endorsed on a traveller’s passport. It enables the traveller to enter the country that issues it legally for a specific time and purpose. But visa requirements, because of their onerous nature, have been blamed for restricting travel and trade. The African Continental Free Trade Area proposes removal of multiple restrictions, including visas, to promote intra-African travel and trade.

Dr Ruto has publicly declared the abolishment of visa requirements for all foreign nationals visiting Kenya. Replacement of visas with ETAs displays the nimble thinking that translates rhetoric to action. However, certain chinks in the otherwise well-thought-out policy should be ironed out to obviate the conniptions in frustrated travellers.

First, ETAs are granted after 72 hours of application. This is unlike previous systems when visas for selected countries were granted on arrival at Kenya’s international ports of entry. Second, ETAs have a charge of USD30 per application for every visitor to Kenya apart from East Africa Community members. This is contrasted with previous times when numerous countries were granted visas at no charge.

Third, ETAs are inflexible. They are only issued for a specific itinerary. They cannot be varied to accommodate changes in travel plans. They don’t take into consideration flight disruptions or cancellations that have become a ubiquitous feature of air travel in these post-Covid times. Closely related to this is the fact that ETAs are single-entry permits. Once used, another ETA must be applied for. Yet the frequent traveller who uses Nairobi as a staging ground while crisscrossing the continent cannot apply for another ETA unless they leave the country. Even then, the new ETA can only be issued after 72 hours.

Visa-free access is not and can never be a carte blanche for every Tom, Dick and Harry to visit Kenya. There are undesirable elements like terrorists and drug traffickers that must be locked out. The ETA, as the Interior Ministry PS says, “meets the need for a fair and reliable system that also addresses Kenya’s security interests and other strategic interests.” But to facilitate the smooth flow of visitors to the country, chinks in the system should be ironed out.

The USD30 requirement for countries that previously did not pay for visas should be removed. There are at least 51 such countries including Malawi and South Africa. ETA in its present form could impact negatively on non-essential travel segments to Kenya such as leisure travel.

The negative impact of ETAs could extend to some connecting segments to destinations like Johannesburg, Dubai and Zanzibar with a stopover in Nairobi. Travellers would opt for transit elsewhere which would hurt JKIA as a regional hub and Nairobi as a conference destination.

Last, there is the threat of reciprocity by countries such as South Africa and Ghana that have hitherto, given Kenyans visa-free access.

Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst