The East African Community (EAC), has devised a joint regional approach aimed at reviving the tourism sector in the region amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tourism has been the worst-hit sector since March 2020 when the EAC countries took measures to contain the spread of Covid-19. The measures that were taken included the closure of airports and land and water entry points, both international and within the region.
About six months later, the airports were reopened under strict operating procedures which also involved the training of airport staff by the EAC and the regional aviation body, the Civil Aviation Safety and Security Oversight Agency (CASSOA).
Previous measures at integrating the regional tourism sector like jointly marketing the destination, single tourist visa, as well as regional tourism expos, have not yielded much fruit.
The EAC Sectoral Council on Tourism and Wildlife Management has now approved the EAC regional Covid-19 tourism recovery plan that seeks to revive the sector that has been badly hit by the pandemic.
The ministers note that some EAC partner states have already instituted measures such as the formulation of stimulus packages aimed at re-igniting the sector and supporting tourism investments in the region including SMEs.
In Uganda for example, the government capitalized on the Uganda Development Bank and, together with the European Union, extended low-cost loans to tourism companies, though many especially SMEs cried foul over the strict conditions for accessing the funds.
In their virtual meeting, the ministers agreed on the need for a collective and coordinated approach towards tourism recovery that entails interventions that are aimed at reinforcing the measures being developed and implemented at national levels.
The ministers further approved the draft regional guidelines for resumption of services in the tourism sector and hospitality establishments but stressed the need for the countries to harmonize their national guidelines.
The regional guidelines would then ensure coordinated resumption of tourism services in the region and help rebuild trust and confidence with international tourists. The ministers also approved the draft regional tourism marketing strategy, which seeks to position the EAC region as the best and most affordable regional tourism destination in Africa.
This strategy will be achieved by developing regionally and internationally competitive multi-destination tourism products; positioning and marketing EAC as a leading regional tourism destination in Africa and branding EAC Africa as a leading tourism destination.
The strategy also involves enhancing the marketing policy and institutional framework and enhancing financing for tourism marketing and promotion. In Uganda, tourism marketing and promotion is allocated Shs 15 billion while product development and research get about Shs 3 billion per year.
Kenya provided Shs 21 billion (Ksh 630 million) for tourism promotion, in addition to the Shs 56 billion (Kshs 1.7 billion) put into the country’s tourism fund. If the plans are implemented as approved by the minister, the EAC will have an annual EAC Regional Tourism Expo (EARTE) to improve the visibility of the region and market it as a single tourist destination.
The 1st EARTE will then be hosted by Tanzania in October 2021. Currently, each country has its annual promotion expos, with Uganda’s being the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo, POATE.
The chair of the council, Kenya’s Tourism Cabinet secretary, Najib Balala, stressed the need for the partner states to work together especially in addressing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourism and in joint tourism recovery efforts.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has taught all of some really important lessons. For instance, domestic and regional tourism markets are key and they can help in making the tourism sector resilient in case of future disasters and pandemics. The pandemic has revealed that we can use technology to connect and have meetings such as this. It is therefore really important that we invest heavily invest in infrastructure and connectivity,” said Balala.
On his part, EAC secretary-general Peter Mathuki said that the tourism sector was one of the most important areas of cooperation for EAC owing to its contribution to the economies. It is estimated that tourism accounts for 10 per cent of GDP, 17 per cent of the export earnings and about 7 per cent of the jobs in the region.
“It’s a multiplier effect and linkages with other sectors that are instrumental in our integration such as agriculture, transport and manufacturing, are quite immense.
However, the travel and tourism sector, globally, was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic more than any other economic sector,” said Mathuki.
Based on statistics reported by the partner states, the region lost close to 70 per cent of international tourist arrivals in 2020 coupled with massive losses in tourism earnings and tourism-related jobs, according to Dr Mathuki.
“The signs this year are still bleak given the recurrent waves of the pandemic that result in the imposition of unpredictable measures and restrictions by Governments around the world from time to time,” said the secretary-general.