Rwanda has protested the decision by the United Kingdom government to ban passengers who have been in or transited through the country.
Rwanda says the decision is not backed by science given that it is enforcing strict protocols to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
The EastAfrican has learnt that following the announcement, the government on Friday summoned Ms Jo Lomas, the British High Commissioner to Rwanda, to provide an explanation.
On Saturday, the government issued a statement seeking explanation from the UK government over the “arbitrary decision.”
“Rwanda is one of the few countries that require a PCR Covid-19 test for all departing passengers and all those in transit. Notably, Rwanda did not join the widespread bans on travellers from the UK in December 2020 over the variant discovered in parts of the UK.
“Considering the list of countries in the region affected and not affected by the ban, the sparse information communicated to Rwanda does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
“Rwanda looks forward to receiving clarifications on the motivations behind this arbitrary decision of the UK government.”
The UK government last week banned travel to its territory from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Burundi and Rwanda to prevent the spread of the new variant originally identified in South Africa.
UK officials also say the decision was recommended by UK scientists, saying Rwanda has limited gene sequencing testing capacity and the ban, which started with Tanzania in the region, is likely to be extended across East Africa.
“The decision to ban travel from these destinations follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant, first identified in South Africa, that may have spread to other countries, including the UAE, Burundi and Rwanda. Any exemptions usually in place will not apply, including for business travel,” the UK said last Thursday in a statement posted on the government website.
However, the decision sparked outrage with Rwandans criticizing it on social media, forcing the British High Commission in Kigali to issue a separate statement on its Twitter handle saying the decision was made across central and southern Africa.
“Non-UK citizens/residents travelling to Rwanda and Burundi are no longer able to enter the UK; direct flights have been banned. This decision has been made across central and southern Africa.
“This decision was taken due to the risk of the new variants rather than any reflection on Rwanda’s strong handling to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic,” the British High Commission said.
The ban is likely to complicate ongoing arrangements for the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM 2021) Summit scheduled for June in Kigali.
The ban also poses new challenges for the government that is facing the twin challenge of containing the pandemic and reviving the economy.
In particular, the ban will hit tourism – the country’s strategic sector which earned it $498 million in 2019, making it the biggest source of foreign exchange for the government.
Rwanda has an ambitious target of growing tourism to $800 million by 2024.
The national carrier–RwandAir–will feel the pinch because its most profitable route Dubai (UAE), a major source of cargo and transiting passengers, is affected by the ban.
The London route, which had already been downgraded to one flight from three weekly flights, is important for Rwanda’s exports as well as transit passengers to and from Europe.
“This is a challenge to a destination depending so much on these two key source markets. Both the UK and Dubai are key aviation hubs for leisure and business travellers to Rwanda… The key message is to communicate that Rwanda is not closed and is still open for business in view of all the circumstances,” Dr Carmen Nibigira, a tourism policy analyst, told The EastAfrican.
According to Mr Frank Mustaff, a tourism expert at Horwath HTL East Africa, the decision by the UK government is controversial because the EU just recommended Rwanda among other countries to be lifted from restrictions due to how effectively they are managing the pandemic.
“…On the other hand, the decision by the UK is supported by dozens of scientists who believe that they must act to protect UK citizens against the new variants of the coronavirus. Ultimately, no one knows really when this pandemic will end, so all countries are trying to protect their citizens with their available evidence,” he told The EastAfrican.
Before the pandemic, Rwanda had aggressively positioned itself as a high tourism destination after successfully launching in May 2018 a three-year marketing deal worth $39 million for its “Visit Rwanda” sleeve sponsorship with English premier league’s top team Arsenal.
According to available public data, in 2019, Rwanda Development Board (RBD) said the country earned $44 million in just one year.
Rwanda had also registered a steady rise in the number of visitors from the UK, recording a five per cent increase in visitors from the country.
While the government is yet to release the latest tourism figures, analysts say the prolonged impact of the pandemic globally, including travel restrictions, will further complicate recovery for Rwanda’s tourism and budding aviation sector.
Report by Berna Namata, Moses K Gahigi and Ivan R. Mugisha.