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Travel: A New Obstacle To African Economic Development

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Travelling through the African continent as an African national is paradoxically extremely difficult. Unfortunately but expectedly so, these travel challenges have many financial repercussions on Africa’s future economic development.

Access denied: the difficulty of travelling as an African national

The image of an economically self-sufficient African continent, emboldened by intercontinental interdependence, was the utopian vision of the great 20th-century Pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey. Today, Garvey would be dismayed at the state of African affairs.

From political instability (with over 27 leadership changes across the continent since 2015), climate change (being the most vulnerable continent to climate change), and financial peril (nearly 40% of sub-Saharan African economies are at risk of slipping into a major debt crisis), economic development in Africa is troubled by another, surprising issue. 

Counter to Garvey’s utopianism, travelling through the continent as an African national is extremely difficult. Laden with bureaucratic, COVID-related and economic obstacles, it appears the road to economic development is one full of potholes. 

Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos / Photo: Femi Awoniyi

Indeed, a report by the African Development Bank shows that Africans need visas to enter 55% of African states and can obtain a visa on arrival in 25% of nations. Alarmingly, North Americans have an easier ride; requiring a visa for just 45% of countries and obtaining a visa on arrival in a further 35% of immigration offices.

Only Seychelles, Benin and The Gambia are the only countries to open entry to all Africans. 

A rocky road to development: the difficulties of intracontinental travel for Africans

Bureaucratic barriers

To the frustration of African travellers, intracontinental travel is thwarted by labyrinthine bureaucratic processes. Most African countries are still only willing to give one-month single-entry visas to other African visitors (with multiple-entry visasfor the same duration being almost twice as costly).

While University of Nairobi Professor Evaristus Irand phrased this as a “costly show of patriotism”, national governments are indifferent to the effects of their aero-nationalism. They are instead vigorously constructing regulatory hurdles to protect their national airlines.

Infrastructural impediments

In addition to bureaucratic stumbling blocks, travel difficulties can be seen as a broader African predicament. Under the shadow of colonialism, infrastructural incapacities continue to obstruct development. Africa accounts for 1% of the world’s air-travel market, but for 12% of the world’s population.

Infrastructural weaknesses mean that flight routes often involve multiple transfers and thousands of extra miles in the air. And a burgeoning, but not yet fully developed tourist industry means that the public often overlooks African destinations. Instead, many search for European, Asian or North American alternatives.

What does this mean for the continent’s future?

Without a functioning air travel system, Africa’s development will struggle to get off the ground. In the U.S. for instance, aviation accounts for more than 5% of GDP, supports around 11 million jobs and contributes $1.6 trillion in economic activity, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

To accelerate African development in the 21stcentury, national governments must lose the baggage associated with air travel and realise Garvey’s vision: of a continent unified and supported by intra-African cooperation.

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