South Africa is one of the most unique and remarkable destinations to visit in the world. It moves visitors in so many ways with its natural beauty, the wildlife, its history, the people and the food.
Tourism is therefore fittingly an important element to the economic and social growth and development of the nation as a whole, contributing approximately 10% (directly + indirectly) to the country’s GDP and employing 1 in 10 South Africans.
Despite this, the Government of South Africa has remarkably and irresponsibly formed new laws, which will deter tourism, with total disregard to their consequence and without dialogue with the industry. For those unaware, in the latter part of 2014 the South African Department of Home Affairs imposed new entry regulations for visitors into South Africa:
- A requirement for children under 18 to carry copies of an UNABRIDGED BIRTH CERTIFICATES,
- The requirement of all prospective applicants in source markets (China and India) requiring a visa to travel to South Africa, to appear in-person to capture BIOMETRIC DATA.
Why the new, now in effect, regulations? The Ministry of Home Affairs is seeking to aggressively tackle issues around human trafficking, particularly of children. South African borders are seen to be porous, and imposing stricter entry regulations are believed by the Dept. of Home Affairs to be a ways of arresting, literally and figuratively, this social ailment.
As important and as well intended as the new regulations may be, the fact is this: human trafficking and tourism have nothing to do with one another, and the blocking of entry of tourists is going to do nothing to curb human trafficking. All it will do is cut off the oxygen of the nation’s vital tourism industry – an industry that one in ten South Africans rely on for the livelihoods and the wellbeing of their families.
Here are the facts that, sadly, the Ministry of Home Affairs failed to grasp when imposing the new regulations:
- South Africa is a nation working tirelessly to stimulate and sustain job creation, SME opportunity, national unity and productivity, not to mention national competitiveness
- Tourism has become a vital source of jobs: as I said earlier, 1 in 10 South Africans is employed through tourism, with the sector exceeding earnings of the country’s traditional lead sector, gold
- Visa and immigration policies are amongst the most important government policies that can influence international tourism.
- While the new regulations only came into effect 1st June 2015, the damage is long-done to visitation numbers, national image, and attractiveness of the destination. Booking periods into 2016 are seeing painful losses.
- Simply blocking tourism flows through increased regulations is not a solution!
And yet, despite the above and significant efforts by global tourism authorities such as the UNWTO and WTTC, along with international airlines and tour operators, to reconsider the regulations, almost a month since implemented, inertia remains. In fact, much to my surprise, I just heard that there isn’t even any tracking being done of trafficking numbers to determine if the new Tourism regulations are having an impact. These means Home Affairs can and will continue to penalise Tourism for trafficking based on hypothesis of correlation, absent of any hard data to show a direct relationship between trafficking and tourism.
Interestingly, as we well know, travel today is a given and if South Africa becomes too hard a destination to visit, which it is now proving to be, all that the Government is doing is opening the door for other tourism nations to grow as a result of its decline.
Cases in point: India. Since the subcontinent’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, took office, profound changes have occurred in the nation’s tourism policies. Why? Because the new Prime Minister recognises the tourism sector as the panacea for a myriad of the nation’s ailments – inclusivity, investment, opportunity, economic advancement, identity and competitiveness. Prime Minister Modi has not just walked the talk, he has sprinted it, taking such dramatic actions as offering e-Visas to a total of 150 nations across the globe (issued within 24 hours), a dramatic rise from the pre-Prime Minister Modi list of 34 countries. The impact – an overwhelming 1024% increase in travellers in the first 5 months of 2015.
Australia and the US have seen similar upswing in tourism arrivals from key source markets such as China and India – the exact markets that South Africa has imposed biometric testing on before visas will be granted. From the 18th June, Australia now allows Chinese visitors to now qualify for 10-year visas. This was reported as a “tourism breakthrough”. To date they have seen Chinese and Indian inbound grow by 18% and 30% respectively.
As a point of reference, Thompsons Travel (which is probably South Africans largest inbound operator – I am Chairman of their parent Company) has, during the January to May 2015 versus the same period in 2014, seen painful decreases of 53% from Chinese and down 54% from Indian travellers. Forward bookings look to maintain the grim rate of decline.
Are these tourists going elsewhere? Absolutely. Mauritius for the same period saw their inbound China and India tourists increase by 26.6% and 24.3% respectively.
Bottom line, the relaxing of visa regulations is not about eliminating of security measures; quite the contrary. All it means is ensuring governments acquire appropriate information before traveller entry and they need to take care in making their visa acquisitions uncomplicated. There are ways of strengthening our borders in tandem to simplifying our visa procedures. Our competitors are clearly getting this win: win approach right.
To attack well-intended tourists, travelling in many cases thousands of miles to spend their time and money in a country, is to attack the major artery of the future of a nation. In the case of South Africa, with its new regulations shutting the door to visitors, this is taking the welcome mat away from my home, and this is simply unforgivable.