A vendor sells African curios in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast. Africa is one of the world’s fastest-growing tourist destinations according to the African Development Bank’s Africa Tourism Monitor - an annual report on the tourism industry in Africa. Picture: Legnan Koula/EPA
A few weeks ago, I was travelling from Nairobi to Bangui. On board our Kenyan Airways flight were members of the Rwandan national football team travelling to the Central African Republic for their Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.

I was surprised that the national team wouldn't be on their national carrier, on a direct flight from the Rwandan capital Kigali to Bangui. It's not that far after all. But a journey that should take perhaps little more than three hours would then take seven or eight hours, depending on the length of the stopover in Nairobi or Entebbe. It turns out they might as well have flown to Amsterdam for the game.

The perils of air travel in Africa is an old story. This anecdote featuring the Rwandan football team is a tame one when compared to the chaos in West Africa.

Fly from Freetown to Banjul, and you will need to fly via Casablanca or Brussels or Abidjan in a set of convoluted connections that could set you back three days.

Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and co-founding editor of The Daily Vox

As African standards go, the issue is pretty standard: a comedy of errors involving poor infrastructure, low passenger demand, high costs, corruption, mismanagement and horrid bilateral diplomacy. But the poor travel linkages between neighbours and distant cousins on the continent has meant a cycle of dysfunctionality and disconnect. Not very useful when it comes to trade, tourism and the exchange of ideas.

We have become so obsessed over the range of land and resources rendered in foreign hands, we’ve forgotten to ponder over who owns the skies.

While our airlines are mismanaged, used as personal flying fiefdoms and run aground by worthless politics, nearly 80% of all flights in and out of the continent are via foreign airlines.

This is unacceptable. And it has to change. And until it does, travel, especially air travel, will remain the preserve of the privileged few. If anything, the lack of a people-centred approach to travel is what has characterised air travel on the continent. It’s almost designed to be exclusive.

But a quiet shift is under way.

A report released by the UN last week found that tourism on the continent was on the increase. Four out of 10 tourists were African. Between 1995 and 2014, international arrivals doubled. More people are coming to the continent than ever before. Yes, four countries - Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia - accounted for more than 60% of all arrivals between 2011 and 2014.

Tourists negotiate prices for African curios with a vendor at the tour boat wharf in Hout Bay harbour, Cape Town. The writer says tourism is critical to growth because of its uncanny ability to employ large numbers of women and youth, skilled and unskilled. Picture: Nic Bothma/EPA

But the stats tell a bigger story.

More than 21million jobs were created in tourism across the continent during that period. This means 1 in 14 jobs were based in tourism.

Depending on tourism is dangerous and ill-advised, but I can’t help but wonder what the possibilities would be if logistics and intra-continental travel were not such a killjoy.

It just doesn't make sense; on average, Africans need visas to travel to more than 50% of other African states, whereas citizens of former colonisers or Western nations are free to walk in at will.

This makes the move over the past year by Rwanda, Seychelles, Mauritius and Ghana to offer an open-visa policy to fellow Africans all the more important. As part of an AU-wide vision for a more mobile and open continent, the launch of the African passport, still in its infancy, could be a game-changer.

And in Rwanda’s case, the focus on infrastructure and visa-free travel has already started to pay off.

Tourism is the fastest-growing sector in the country and the country's largest foreign exchange earner.

Of course, the naysayers will draw attention to the endless wars and conflicts raging in parts of east, west and central Africa as a reality check. The pace of change will remain painfully slow because there are just too many hassles to make travel a priority. There are undemocratic regimes, puppet governments and militia groups that make tourism seem too much of a First World sport; this continent is home to Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, after all. Together, these two groups affect at least six African countries.

But we forget that the continent is home to 54 countries; 17 of which have never had a “terror” attack. More than half of the continent has not experienced a “terrorism”-related death since 2013.

Another six countries have experienced fewer than 10 killings each. We forget that the continent is also far bigger than Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.

The economic potential from opening up travel and promoting tourism is endless. Tourism itself is critical to inclusive growth because of its uncanny ability to employ a large number of women and youth, skilled and unskilled.

With so much of the continent flanked by natural landscapes and wildlife, it has to be done in an ethical and sustainable manner in conjunction with local communities. In many ways, the protected reserves are primed for eco-tourism. If done properly, it also has the potential to improve the living standards of people far quicker than anything else.

Also, after their loss to the Central Africans, the Rwandan football team deserved a direct flight home.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and co-founding editor of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not neessarily those of Independent Media.