New visa regulations are not having a negative impact on tourism. In fact, tourism will most likely even improve because of them.
So says Mayihlome Tshwete, spokesperson for Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who was adamant this week that the outcry was entirely unwarranted.
He said the country’s borders were still porous despite the tightening of visa requirements, but abandoning security would hit tourism severely.
“If a bomb goes off in Sandton, what’s going to suffer the most? The tourism sector,” Tshwete said this week.
At the beginning of last month, two new visa laws kicked in for travellers.
First, any child crossing into or out of the country is now required to have an unabridged birth certificate and, where the child is travelling with one parent, consent from the other parent must be given.
Second, anyone applying for a visa to South Africa must now do so in person to have their biometric data captured.
But until the end of September at the earliest, the hard evidence from Stats SA about the impact of these regulations won’t be available.
And even then, the reason for any change will be largely open to interpretation and qualitative.
However, apart from the home affairs department, no one believes these “draconian measures” are going to be of any benefit – even to children vulnerable to human trafficking.
Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom has gone deafeningly mute on the topic since addressing reporters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) last month.
At the time, Hanekom boldly said the regulations needed to be reviewed, and that they were hurting South Africa. He noted that tourism figures had dropped off markedly. He said, specifically, that Air China was reconsidering flights to South Africa, partly because of the new visa requirements.
City Press was this week unable to make any contact with Hanekom. Queries sent to the department were not responded to.
And since his outspoken statement at the WEF, no further mention of a review of the regulation has been made.
Tshwete said there would not be one either.
“The laws are not up for debate. We have passed that point. We are not going to change our minds.”
The Tourism Business Council of SA released a report last month estimating that the new regulations would cost South Africa R1.4 billion and cut tourist numbers by 100 000 this year.
But Tshwete was dismissive of such projections: “The numbers keep on changing. How do you arrive at these numbers anyway?”
The tourism sector, which now contributes about 9% of the country’s gross domestic product, has been the fastest-growing in the country, spurred on by the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
Home affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni admitted last month that about 20 000 fewer people had come into South Africa between June 1 and 22 compared with the same three weeks last year. But this wasn’t necessarily the fault of the new regulations – it could have been due to economic factors or perceptions about Ebola.
But Apleni emphasised that the number of people arriving from the US and the UK‚ responsible for the fourth- and fifth-largest arrival numbers in South Africa‚ had remained stable.
This week, Tshwete said the number of people coming from France had even increased.
“They have all the documents for their kids [in any case],” Tshwete said.
Paddy Brearley, MD of Legacy Hotels and Resorts, which owns and manages a collection of high-end hotels, bush lodges and resorts, said this week the company had noted a 75% downturn in Chinese demand from September.
Brearley said Legacy’s European market had not been affected at all. The “US market has grown beautifully and Africa is growing all the time”.
The effect of the Chinese-market retraction was not of major concern to the company because Chinese visitors made up only 8% of the total.
“But our industry is just a portion of where these tourists spend,” he said, citing the vast ancillary industries – including tour operators, craft shops, duty-free shops and even the processed-diamond industry – as being negatively affected by the shrinkage.
Erik Venter, CEO of Comair, which operates budget airline Kulula and the local British Airways franchise, said his company had definitely noticed a change in tourism capacity. He said this was most evident when looking at the effect on tourism-focused destinations out of South Africa, such as Victoria Falls, Livingstone and Windhoek. The increase in visitors from the US, UK and Europe – which was slight – was probably a result of the collapse in the exchange rate.
Venter said the problem with reading too much into these markets was that they were “mature”. If there was any growth in visitor numbers from such countries, it would be minor and likely to return to a base level.
The Asian market, though, had been growing at about 74% a year, an exponential figure, before the regulations came into play. Venter said that at the rate this market had been growing, it had been primed to be South Africa’s biggest tourism market in five years. “In theory, it could have doubled the entire industry in this period.”
Venter said that, as far as government was concerned, “as long as it doesn’t shrink, it’s OK”.
Tshwete admitted that the way documents were processed could be improved and glitches – such as delays in delivery – could be fixed.
“We can change how we do it,” he said, but the core fundamentals of protecting children must not be debated. “The consent [affidavits] and unabridged birth certificates ... those cannot be changed.”