Why Traveling Around Africa Is Difficult for Africans

I was scrolling on social media when a post caught my eye. Green Ranger Safaris, a travel company I’d never heard of, was organizing a road trip through seven African countries. This trip would start in Nairobi, Kenya, then head down into Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana. The pricing was reasonable, so I paid a deposit, brushing aside concerns about both spending weeks on end with a group of strangers and the slight chance that the trip might have been an excellently worded scam.

A few months later, in August, I was on a truck with those strangers. It was late in the evening, and we swept through the Kalahari Desert in northern Botswana, the sun in the sky a flaming orb, the only visible life on the sand of the desert being the shrubs, the wild horses, and the herds of elephants. Music swirled from the truck’s speakers, a mishmash of popular Kenyan songs from the turn of the century and Nigerian megahits. The countries we were traveling to had been chosen mostly because they were all English-speaking and provided visa-free travel to Kenyans, so the border crossings were simple, with clearances for the trucks, stamps for our passports and, in Botswana, disinfectant for our shoes.

Talk among the passengers was already turning toward doing similar trips in other parts of Africa. One suggested starting in Namibia, sweeping down along the coast into South Africa, moving through the megacities there, then traveling to Lesotho and Eswatini before entering Mozambique. Another pitched a West Africa trip. It all sounded exciting. Everything was possible. But then another passenger brought up Niger, where a coup had just led to the country’s closure of its borders. What would happen if a person took a West Africa road trip and then there was a coup? Would the passenger have to stay there and never go home? We laughed at the absurdity. But behind the laughter was real heartache. Because the reality is that any African traveler has thought about the difficulty of traveling as an African.

My mother was a traveler, and when she traveled for work, my brothers and I would travel in Kenya with her. Then, when I was older, the expanse of my travel grew larger: First I traveled around Kenya, then around East Africa. Now I have a desire to explore the continent, to explore versions of myself in other countries in Africa, home to some of the most humbling and impressive landscapes and vistas in the world: to the largest freestanding mountain on earth (Kilimanjaro); to the largest hot desert in the world (Sahara); to thundering waterfalls twice as wide and deep as Niagara (Victoria); to sparkling white-sand beaches; to UNESCO-listed nature reserves; to cities whose histories stretch back through millennia; and to award-winning wine regions. But I find myself marooned before the bank of difficulties other African travelers face.

A few months after my Green Ranger trip, I spoke to Anneli Douglas, an academic at the University of Pretoria in South Africa who has studied travel in Africa. She pointed out how much easier it is for Western visitors to get visas for Africa than it is for African travelers to visit their countries. “Sometimes, travelers have to travel long distances to apply for a visa, or there might not even be representation of the destination country in the home country, making it difficult to obtain a visa at all,” she says. “Also, for Western countries, the cost to obtain a visa to Africa is much cheaper than what it is for Africans—considering the value of the local currency.”

In places like Kenya, African destinations are rarely marketed to would-be travelers. Instead, there is a surfeit of packages offering holiday trips in destinations like Dubai, Bangkok, and Istanbul, because it is not only easier but also often cheaper to organize trips to these places than it is to organize trips within the continent. Even when visas are relatively easily attainable, travel from one African country to another is rife with difficulties. Sam Maundu, a Nairobi-based tour operator who runs Rosolo Safaris, which organizes trips around Africa, had no shortage of factors ready when I asked what these difficulties are: “Language barriers, visa restrictions, expensive flights, African destinations not targeting Africans to visit, long distances to be covered either by road or by flight since there are often no direct flights, security situations in some places, perception that there is nothing to see in other African countries, harassment by border officials.”

One of the lingering effects of colonialism on the continent is that interaction between African countries tends to exist along mostly colonial lines: There are the former Portuguese colonies, the former British colonies, the former French colonies. Passport holders from Kenya, which was colonized by Britain, are mostly able to go to former British colonies visa-free or with visa-on-arrival status. This means that for a person planning a trip, it becomes easier to think of traveling to these countries. On our multiple-country road trip, the travelers were mostly holders of Kenyan and Ugandan passports (Uganda, another former British colony), and so the countries that the trucks went to were all—except for Namibia—former vestiges of the British Empire. This shared history meant also that because all these countries have English as an official language, it would be relatively easy for us travelers to communicate with people there.

Samuel Agblorti is a lecturer at the Centre for Mixed Migration and Diaspora Studies of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. I ask him about about a hypothetical trip from Cameroon to Senegal, across a region where multiple coups have happened in recent years. Safety concerns rising from these events had further entrenched visa restrictions across Africa. “Because our borders aren’t very well protected, there is a fear that allowing too many visitors will make it unsafe,” Agblorti tells me. But even getting those visitors has been a problem.

People sitting on chairs on the beach under yellow and orange umbrellas

Europe is one of the biggest sources of international arrivals in Africa.

Photo by Michelle Heimerman

In 2016, the African Union announced plans for an AU passport to be rolled out by 2020. This passport would open travel across the continent, as more African citizens wouldn’t need visas to travel to other African countries. However, more than seven years later, the passport hasn’t been launched, stymied by a mixture of security concerns and protectionist attitudes among African states. (The AU remains silent on when and if the passport will be launched.) Still, Agblorti says such a passport would not necessarily be the panacea that its supporters think it would be as it wouldn’t automatically lead to visa-free travel without individual states implementing it. He gave the example of regional blocs such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose membership comprises 15 West African states whose citizens hold ECOWAS passports. “Even within ECOWAS, there are protocols that member countries are supposed to adhere to, but some of them don’t,” he says. “You may have a common passport, but if the countries don’t make extra commitments, then it doesn’t matter.”

Thus far, only a handful of African countries have committed to allowing African visitors to visit without a visa: Gambia, Benin, and Seychelles; Rwanda has announced plans to implement this. On a small scale, then, African visitors to these countries will experience the promise of the AU passport—if it does indeed come to fruition.

Most recently, in December 2023, rather than introduce the visa-free status its president had promised, Kenya announced that it would require an electronic travel authorization (ETA), to increase revenue from visitors seeking to enter Kenya. Visa-free entry was scrapped for all but five other East African countries, and new travel requirements and fees were introduced for countries whose citizens had previously enjoyed visa-free travel into Kenya. To some, the doors of entry—rather than being flung open—were being closed even tighter.

Another issue is how expensive it is to travel in Africa. According to a 2013 World Bank report, airfare within Africa is roughly 50 percent more expensive than airfare in comparable locations worldwide. Flights from one African country to the other tend to be much more expensive than flights from Africa to Europe and Asia, despite logic that the shorter the distance, the cheaper the flight ought to be. This means, in effect, that a traveler from Kampala, Uganda, would find it more affordable, and therefore more attractive, to fly to Dubai than to Maputo, Mozambique, despite the latter being much closer than the UAE.

Tour operator Maundu told me that this makes it difficult for him to suggest to his clients travel packages that involve other African destinations: Often, it means the cost of the round-trip air tickets more than doubles the cost of the entire travel package. And there aren’t always reliable road or rail options that offer alternative transport to travelers. Most leisure travelers can’t move directly by rail from Kenya to South Africa (there is a luxury train network between Tanzania and South Africa that costs $19,000), while in most other regions of the continent, not only are there no multicountry rail options, but also existing bus networks rely on terrible roads.

The irregularity or non-availability of intra-regional air connections and of internal air transport also constrains access to internal destinations and prevents progress with multicountry tourism packages, Maundu says. Also, tax rates per passenger in Africa are more expensive than they are on other continents: The total tax per passenger is about $64, compared to $30.23 in Europe and $29.65 in the Middle East. This is exacerbated by the lack of a single unified aviation market, whose absence means that fares and tax rates swing with volatility across different parts of the continent.

Rather than negotiate with one central body, airlines operating in Africa deal with individual countries, which each usually have different rates and requirements for entry. In Europe, for instance, the establishment of the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) in 2006 decreased airfares across Europe by making possible the rise of a fleet of low-cost airlines, and at the same time increased the volume of flights within European airports. In this vein, there have been attempts to establish a single aviation market in Africa. The most recent of these attempts is the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). Announced in 2018, the SAATM so far has signed on 34 countries. However, like the AU passport before it, the SAATM has not been implemented, and so it remains nothing but an idea.

In the meantime, African travelers continue to dream. Travel plans continue to be made. Potential destinations continue to be talked about. At the end of our seven-country road trip, as we headed back to Kenya, we spoke again about organizing future trips together, our group of strangers now bonded as friends. Some people discussed taking a trip to Uganda over the next month. Others talked about heading across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius. In Lusaka, Zambia, where the first batch of travelers would leave us to fly back to Nairobi, weepy goodbyes were made. “We are family,” one of them said.

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