This is the question many people across the South African tourism industry have begged answers for, against the African tourism giant experiencing unusual low tourism arrivals.
Predictable, for a country that in recent times has seen millions of visitors from both traditional and emerging source markets descending on South Africa to experience a combination of man-made and natural wonders, dotting its length and breadth. Many outsiders arriving in the country on business trips, especially those unaware of the country’s infrastructural facilities and standards, comparable with the first world, returned to their homes with lasting impressions to tell remarkable stories of world class development. However, despite the reputation of its famed allure, South Africa’s tourism industry began to experience gloom. That reality left the tourism industry fraternity struggling with the situation. Industry business owners and executives who had become accustomed to brisk business and massive profits were experiencing sleepless nights.
Update on Newly Relaxed SA Visa Regulations
The low tourism statistics were attributed to the visa regulation passed in 2015. It required parents to carry unabridged birth certificates for accompanying children, as well as letters of permission from parents that were not travelling. Concerns were ardently raised by most tourism industry players. They pointed out that the South African government’s decision to introduce unfriendly visa regulations was largely to blame for “hurting” tourism businesses. Amid loud outcries, the ruling hit the tourism industry hard, threatening its vibrancy and viability.
The fact that global entertainer and British actor Idris Elba’s daughter was a victim of the new requirement further amplified the calls to revisit the entry prerequisite. To avert further escalation of the crisis, an intervention was needed, to save the industry from further decline and job losses. Tourism Business Council South Africa (TBCSA) say that the tourism industry, which employs more than 1.5 million people has been identified by the government as one of the sectors that are potential growth engines and that can lift the South African economy out of the recession, by creating jobs and reducing high unemployment. The industry generates about R400 billion ($28 billion) estimated at 10% of its GDP. Therefore, the South African Government could not pretend to be blind to the negative impact of a law hurting its wealthy economy.
“Allowing applications via courier means it will be much easier for potential travellers to obtain a visa, and we are confident that this will increase tourist numbers from some of our most important untapped source markets.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s then announced amendments as part of a broader economic turnaround strategy focused on moving the African continent’s most advanced economy out of a slump. Then Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba reportedly expressed the need to relax some immigration rules. This covered the inclusion of visa waiver agreements with additional source markets, all geared at improving investment into the country and tourism. That was a prudent move, considering his department is responsible for about 10 million visitors, including tourists, business travellers, investors and neighbours. Visitors from all over the world, including significant growth source markets like China and India were to enjoy newly regulated travel policies that offer them access to 5-year multiple entry documents.
The two Asian countries would have people travelling for business and to invest, enjoy arrangements, where 10-year visas would be processed in just 5 days. Furthermore, changes covered a three-year, multiple visa for frequent, trusted travellers to SA and a 10-year visa for African region business people and academics. Waiver accords for visitors from the continent, as well as other regions like the Middle East and Eastern Europe and countries like Qatar, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also included as well as selected categories of visitors from African countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. The new visa move was made to unlock uninhibited interest and to come into effect from October were designed to see tourists coming to South Africa in increasing numbers.
Tourism industry response to the relaxed visa
As is usual in such situations, leading tourism industry experts and organisations then sprung into action.
Tim Haris, CEO at Wesgro Tourism, Trade and Investment said that his organisation welcomed the amendments as ease of travel and movement across borders is a fundamental building block of the global economy. “The relaxed visa regulations include a number of measures that will boost tourism,” he said. He pointed out several things such as, for example, relaxing the requirement for travellers to apply for a visa in person in countries like China and India will make a very big difference to ease of travel for visitors from these countries, as will long-term multiple entry visas. The other factor he mentioned was that since 2014, travellers from countries that require a visa for South Africa have had to travel to a South African visa application centre in person in order to apply: In large countries this meant travelling very far distances just to obtain a visa, discouraging potential tourists. “Allowing applications via courier means it will be much easier for potential travellers to obtain a visa, and we are confident that this will increase tourist numbers from some of our most important untapped source markets”, he said.
China and India were to enjoy newly regulated travel policies that offer them access to 5-year multiple entry documents. The two Asian countries would have people travelling for business and to invest, enjoy arrangements where 10-year visas would be processed in just 5 days.
Mr Haris further explained that effective implementation will be the greatest challenge. He referred to the relaxation of documentary requirements for foreigners travelling to South Africa with minors as having the potential to have a much needed positive impact on travel to the country, especially family travel. However, he also suggested this will require specialised training for airport security and boarder controls operating at these posts. “The level of success, however, will be entirely dependent on how it is put into practice. The changes will need to be executed in a manner that avoids confusion and encourages certainty for potential travellers to South Africa. “These measures are ‘quick wins’, they are simple and quick to implement and do not require significant resources to put into effect. The measures do ease travel for many visitors, and will improve tourism numbers; however we see these amendments as a first step in the right direction. There is still a lot more that needs to be done, and to truly boost numbers and maximise the economic development potential of tourism it is going to take a concerted national effort,” he said.
Professor Ciná van Zyl, Acting COD: Department of Entrepreneurship, Supply Chain, Transport, Tourism and Logistics Management, College of Economic and Management Sciences, UNISA weighed in, saying: “According to reports, the dropping of the visa requirement for Russian citizens resulted in an immediate increase in arrivals from that country by 25%. Iran, Saudia Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar are among the most promising markets for which the visa requirement will reportedly be waived.”
She explained that the most important change is the easing of the process for application and its impact on the two large markets of China and India but noted that this however, remains to be seen how it would work out in practice and whether the requirement to be able to prove parental consent in the case of travelling minors remains an obstacle.
These measures are “quick wins”, they are simple and quick to implement and do not require significant resources to put into effect. The measures do ease travel for many visitors, and will improve tourism numbers; however we see these amendments as a first step in the right direction. There is still a lot more that needs to be done, and to truly boost numbers and maximise the economic development potential of tourism it is going to take a concerted national effort.”
“Moving towards an electronic visa system, to be trialed for New Zealand citizens from April 2019 is a positive step and South Africans themselves will benefit from the introduction of electronic passport control systems to ease their way through airports,” she added. Her observation was that in general, relaxing visa regulations has excellent potential for increasing tourist arrivals in South Africa, but it is not clear whether the new proposed regulations go far enough.
“The new regulations appear to ease all aspects of obtaining permission to visit South Africa, but it is possible that challenges will arise related to the e-visa application process in New Zealand and in training airline and immigration staff to accept the e-visa. “If we look at South Africa’s tourist arrivals, compared to those of Thailand (for example) the trends over the past five years have been similar, although South Africa’s are more seasonal (source: Trading Economics). Although the regulations about travelling minors and the visa requirement for New Zealanders have impacted on arrivals, I do not think the impact has been huge and I do not expect the latest regulations to do much more that reverses this modest change,” she said. Asked whether government’s move was adequate to realise high tourist arrivals, her response was that a huge impact will be achieved only if the application process becomes very easy for major markets such as China, India or Nigeria (possibly even using the e-visa) or even if a further relaxation waives the visa requirement for those countries. At the same time, she was concerned that the changes do not go far enough to provide a major boost to tourist arrivals.
“At the moment, the majority of recorded tourist arrivals are from the SADC countries (mainly Zimbabwe and Lesotho) and the traditional Western tourism markets. The Netherlands (population 17 million) still sends more tourists than China (population 1, 4 billion) to South Africa, for example,” she further said. Professor Van Zyl further highlighted that the major source of overseas arrivals remains the old colonial power, the UK and to properly capture the tourism demand in the rapidly developing countries of Africa and Asia will require more far-reaching changes. Today, Australia welcomes 18 times more tourists from China than South Africa does and therefore for South Africa, the target should be to at least equal that. TBCSA acknowledged steps taken by government, however adding that the industry still had a very long way to go on easing immigration regulations. CEO of the TBCSA, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa in a statement said “We, as the industry, are and have been ready to come to the table to grow the economy, create jobs and assist with transformation, but we need the government to allow us the space to do that.
Therefore, we welcome the progress in visa waivers for selected countries, but we need this to happen quickly with the holiday season fast approaching. ”He stressed that the issue of unabridged birth certificate for minors travelling is still a huge concern for the industry. “We raised this issue four years ago and we have engaged with government on the negative impact of these regulations, we further asked the department of Home Affairs to share with us the statistics on child trafficking through international airports, which never happened. We have said from the very beginning that unabridged birth certificates have created a large barrier for tourism in and out of South Africa.
“The (government) announcement doesn’t change anything; Home Affairs is once again circling around this issue. We want this regulation to be completely removed to re-encourage the movement of people into South Africa if we are serious about creating jobs”, commented Mr. Tshivhengwa. “President Ramaphosa, through his stimulus package, recognised tourism as one of the key sectors in stimulating the economy and creating jobs. What was announced by the Minister of Home Affairs is still the same policy that will not grow tourism. We need bold moves to fully remove regulatory barriers and not endless discussion”, added Mr. Tshivhengwa.
He said that off the back of the President’s announcement of pending amendments to these regulations, many have come out to strongly criticise the lack of action in this regard.
“The Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) has also been left frustrated and disappointed by the President’s failure to directly address the known issues at hand,” further noted the TBCSA statement. It also mentioned that the Association of Southern African Travel Agencies (ASATA) CEO, Otto De Vries, was familiar with the challenges. “The controversial requirement for travelling families has stifled outbound tourism, as it is making it difficult for local families to travel internationally. Why would you continue to apply a policy that will hamper and frustrate them?” De Vries said. De Vries summed up his statement by saying, “South Africa’s government needs to remove the requirement for travel with an unabridged birth certificate for all passport holders.”
Tshivhengwa has echoed these sentiments, and have questioned the lack of urgent and genuine action by the South African Government. He has been stern in stating what the country needs to bolster the economy from a tourism point of view. Tshivhengwa expressed that tourism is ready to and can play a key role in boosting the country’s economy, if the correct measures are put in place. In the same statement by the TBCSA, CEO of Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA), David Frost expressed his frustration with the Minister’s announcement saying his organisation has long been at the forefront of one of the pioneering campaigns to abolish the need to carry unabridged birth certificates since its inception in 2015.
We, as the industry, are and have been ready to come to the table to grow the economy, create jobs and assist with transformation, but we need the government to allow us the space to do that. Therefore, we welcome the progress in visa waivers for selected countries, but we need this to happen quickly with the holiday season fast approaching.”
The TBCSA noted that South Africa is faced with a difficult economic condition with declining economic growth, tourism arrival declining, and tourism business confidence at its lowest for years. “Removing these immigration barriers will go a long way in increasing tourist arrivals, increase employment, and contribute positively to the economy” said Tshivhengwa.
“As the TBCSA, we remain open to having a robust discussion to move this economy forward.” The head of TBCSA also voiced his concern at the need to avoid self-inflicted entry regulations that were benefiting other countries at the expense of South Africa and as a result thought that it was important for the new regulations to be put in place as a matter of urgency. Perhaps time will tell whether the strategies prescribed by government will be effective in bringing back the good old days to South African tourism.