Kenya receives first visa-free visitors at JKIA

The first batch of travellers that used the ETA system to come to Kenya after the President's visa-free order at JKIA in Nairobi on January 5, 2023. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

On December 12 during the Jamhuri Day celebrations in Nairobi, President William Ruto announced there will be no visa requirements for visitors coming to the country starting this month.

The President's directive elicited mixed reactions among Kenyans with some arguing the decision would cause more harm than good to the country than good.

"It is with great pleasure, as President of this extraordinary country to make a historic announcement of the decision of the Government of Kenya beginning January 2024, Kenya will be a visa-free country," he said.

However, the Kenya Kwanza administration, via a special gazette notice issued on January 5, announced that foreigners will need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) before visiting Kenya.

The ETA system is a platform that will take about ten minutes to fill in and process the details of a specific visitor coming to the country.

This has now replaced the old tradition where one would be forced to wait for hours to complete the process or sometimes not get the green light to enter the country.

And now the first group of visitors from various countries has landed in the country following the President's directive. Ruto had said the new process was set to begin on January 1.

On Friday, Principal Secretary for Immigration Julius Bitok was on the ground to welcome the visitors at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Details of the visitors were processed through the new system.

The government now says this will allow visitors from all over the world to obtain the Electronic Travel Authorization.

"The ETA is now a legal requirement for all visitors coming to Kenya. We have put in place all necessary measures, engaging stakeholders and partners to ensure a smooth transition to the new system," Bitok said.

He said Kenya joins the list of 51 other visa-free countries, emphasizing that the country is open to international visitors.

This move is aimed at simplifying the entry process, making Kenya more appealing to global tourists.

The implementation of ETA is anticipated to attract a larger number of visitors, providing a substantial boost to the tourism industry and creating additional opportunities for local businesses and communities.

"We have been receiving about two million tourists per year. But we believe that with this policy shift, the numbers will double, to over five million per year," said the PS.

The Principal Secretary emphasized the importance of tourism, acknowledging its crucial role in contributing to the national economy.

"If you look at the expenditure by every tourist, you put an average of about $3,500 for the three months they are in Kenya. When you convert that into Kenyan shillings, they will be spending a little about half a million when they are in Kenya."

Bitok said the necessary infrastructure and support systems are in place to facilitate the seamless processing of visitors using the ETA.

The Director General for Immigration, Evelyn Cheluget, noted that the country was going to another level of digitization with the application of the ETA being easier and faster.

"It is now an open country for the world to come in. And we are ready. Kenya is now free for everyone to visit," she said.

The Director General of Kenya Civil Aviation Emile Arao stated that the system will ensure Kenya becomes more safe and secure for visitors and all the citizens at large.

Kenya now becomes the second country in Africa to open its borders, following Rwanda’s decision to grant visa-free travel to all Africans on November 3, 2023.

Before waiving visa requirements for all foreign nationals, Kenya had also lifted visa restrictions for Indonesian passport holders on August 21, 2023. This was after bilateral talks between Ruto and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Indonesia joined Senegal and Congo as countries that Kenya has visa-free agreements with. Comoros is also expected to sign a similar agreement with Kenya by the end of the year.