Will Malawi Benefit from New Visa Fees?

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Malawi implemented new visa regulations which took effect on October 1st, 2015. The new requirements introduce a visa payment scheme for travelers to Malawi providing for the following categories and prices (in US Dollars):

  1. Transit Visa; $50 upon arrival or $70 if obtained outside Malawi at a Malawi Diplomatic Mission.
  2. Single Entry Visa; $75 within Malawi or $100 outside Malawi.
  3. Multiple Entry Visa (6 Months); $150 within Malawi or $220 outside Malawi.
  4. Month Multiple Entry Visa (12 Months); $250 within Malawi or $300 outside Malawi.
  5. Gratis Visa: Free regardless of whether its issued either within or outside Malawi.

There are a few exceptions – Southern African Development Community and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa member countries do not need to get a visa unless their country requires a visa of Malawian citizens. Furthermore, members from select nationalities only have the option of obtaining their visa at a mission outside of Malawi.

The new regulations have prompted a debate about the wisdom of the government enacting visa fees at this time. Some regard it as a desperate attempt by the government to find any source of revenue at the expense of tourism, whilst others regard it not only as a good revenue source but also as a long overdue part of diplomatic reciprocity practices. Although there are shortcomings in its implementation, in the long run, they should be regarded as more of a benefit than cost.

Who Benefits from Visa Fees?

The advantages of Malawi introducing reciprocal visas fees are clear. The visa fees will provide a good source of revenue for the country that can be used for maintaining and upgrading facilities, installing new technologies, and expanding airport services. The fees can also be used to cover government projects in the tourism industry or related areas. Therefore, the state and government will benefit from this additional revenue.

Visas are also important for limiting opportunities for child or human trafficking since they help keep better track of who is entering and leaving the country. Frankly speaking, not all tourists come with good intentions therefore Malawi needs to protect its own interests by not continuing to accept any and all visitors without an adequate screening process.

Malawi receives its fair share of visitors that are criminals escaping prosecution in their own countries, representatives from fake NGOs, or fraudulent business people and other criminal elements. This is an important step towards looking out for Malawi’s interests and not that of others.

Every country looks out for its own interests first. This is why countries of the Global North are increasing restrictions on visas to Africans entering their countries but discouraging reciprocal visas for their own citizens. Naturally, they site reasons such as the benefits to tourism or showing lack of hospitality, but ultimately this benefits the Global North tourist who has to spend less out of pocket for travel.

Of course, this has implications for power relations between the South and North when one considers that concept of diplomatic reciprocity is encouraged for some countries but not others.

We need to consider how we can ever be equal players in the global political system when poor have open door policies and rich ones have closed door policies. Such policies keep power in the hand of the rich – making them richer. They keep poor countries constantly seeking for revenue to sustain tourism infrastructure or activities.

In international diplomatic relations, the principle of reciprocity states that benefits granted by one state to the citizens should be returned in kind. Therefore, having a reciprocal visa is not a matter of how “welcoming” Malawi is to tourists nor an attempt to put up hurdles for potential tourists – it’s matter of sustaining tourism activity, leveling out the playing field and standard diplomatic reciprocity practices.

Won’t Malawians Suffer the Most?

Tourists come to Malawi because they have an interest in Malawi. It may be driven by a need to escape the routine of their everyday lives in their home countries or because their work requires it. However, businesses are in Malawi because they are making money off the country, so they will come regardless.

Similarly, NGOs are in Malawi because they too are businesses and need to produce deliverables to keep their jobs or organizations funded. Simply speaking, the aid industry is a major employer and many people in the Global North would be out of a job if this sector closes. In either case, they are all benefiting from their visit and we need to stop thinking that Malawi has nothing to offer to them or we already come out behind.

Malawi is already lagging behind on this issue in relation to the rest of the continent. The majority of African countries have some type of visa fee requirement regardless of the stage of their tourism development or how poor they are. However, these countries that do have visa requirements are now being encouraged to loosen these requirements by international agencies.

The World Bank Report on Africa regards visas fees in Africa as a constraint to the tourism industry on the premise that high fees are cumbersome and deter tourists. They suggest that the money that tourists spend in African nations far exceeds the amount obtained from the tourist visa fees.

Critics of the current world order and World Bank policies that are sometimes ill-conceived, argue that tourism is largely an extractive industry where tourism dollars  do not stay in “developing” countries. Hoteliers, safari tour operators, and airlines tend to be foreign owned therefore their primary interest is not always reinvesting in the county.

They are also likely to be against visa fees because, as business men and women, their obvious interest is in the potential to affect their business revenue.  This leaves countries like Malawi seeing little tourism money trickle in to the economy. Since the arguments touting the benefits of reduced or no visa fees are debatable, implementing a visa fee is one way to guarantee that the country will benefit from some money  remaining in the country.

Currently, there is little evidence that the implementation of the visa will reduce or impact tourism to Malawi. Malawi would need to monitor the situation over the next several years to determine this. Many of Malawi’s tourists travel to Malawi for business, missionary work or other work that is supported by an organization. This means that the extra cost of a visa fee is negligible and won’t be felt by these travellers.

Instead, the additional expense will be billed to overhead in a company as the cost of doing business. This is also true for NGOs – and one may need to question the moral compass of NGOs not willing implement an aid project simply because they don’t want to contribute to pay a visa fee that may be used to support infrastructure projects or pay salaries.

Perhaps, it is the individual travellers that come to Malawi for leisure, or to visit friends and family that may be impacted by these fees somewhat because they have smaller budgets than large organizations. However, we must consider that most tourist coming to Malawi form the Global North have greater disposable income and stronger purchasing power.

If an individual budgets $3,000 to visit to Malawi, then $75 is a negligible cost in relation to the total amount spent for the trip. Similarly, for a family of four, $300 added expense to a $12,000 budget for a usual and customary cost of traveling may not prevent them from traveling.

This is why it is not uncommon to hear Malawi mission staff abroad report receiving frequent inquiries about visa fees to Malawi only to be pleasantly surprised when they are told its free – such callers are not likely to be deterred by a fee they consider normal.

The new visa fees are a normal and necessary revenue earner for Malawi and should be regarded as a benefit since the benefits outweigh the costs. Overtime, detractors will adjust their expectations and build these fees into their business or travel budgets as the fees will be regarded as customary.

There is no guarantee that the visa fees will reach the ordinary man and woman in the streets – its enactment seems to be motivated by a government reaction to lack of donor funding rather than a true vision for funding infrastructure, tourism projects or for diplomatic reciprocity. However, overall, the fees will bring much needed foreign exchange to Malawi that will be used in Malawi.

Sitinga is a scholar in Sociology and African Studies. Topics of interest include socio-economic development, nation-branding, tourism, image, identity, and the global political economy and of course, Africa!She has worked worked in non-profit, healthcare, development, and education organizations. She is on the board of the Malawi Washington Association and Southern African Community USA. She has lived in Malawi and South Africa and currently lives in the US but you can catch her online, blogging at rebrandafrica.org and dualcitizenshipmalawi.org.

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