How visa regulations are killing SA tourism

26 July 2015 - 02:00 By Mariam Isa

South Africa's onerous new visa regulations have wreaked havoc on the tourism industry, ending an extended period of buoyant growth that had generated jobs and spurred the sluggish economy, according to a slew of reports and observations from top executives in the sector. Tourist arrivals fell 6% in the first quarter of this year - the first decline since the 2009 recession - and the industry blames this largely on the first batch of new regulations introduced in October last year. These require visitors to appear in person to apply for visas and submit digital photographs and fingerprints.The biggest drops were seen in the most important emerging markets for tourism, China and India, with visitors from these countries down by 38% and 13% respectively compared with the corresponding period last year, according to data from Stats SA. Tourist arrivals from Africa, which account for the bulk of the market, also fell.story_article_left1A tourism business index released by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa on Monday fell to 83.6 in the second quarter of this year from 99.9 in the first quarter. It predicts further declines, based on a survey of accommodation , tour and coach operators, as well as rental companies, airlines and travel agents.South Africa lost R886-million of tourism spend last year and is set to forgo a further R1.4-billion this year, according to an impact assessment study published by the council last month.Grant Thornton Advisory Services says R1.6-billion has already been lost in the first quarter."This is really a catastrophe - we haven't experienced this decline in tourism in the past 21 years," said Lee-Anne Bac, a partner and director at the company. "It's such an important industry to our economy - it creates jobs, it's an easy entry for entrepreneurship and it is dominated by small business. It's a key part of the growth potential of our economy, and we are giving it away to our competitors."No accurate measures are available, but Stanlib economist Kevin Lings estimates that the tourism sector contributes 5% of GDP, the broadest measure of an economy's output.Tourism business council CEO Mmatsatsi Ramawela said she believed its contribution is significantly larger, at between 8% and 10%."Hotel rooms are empty, jobs are on the line. The long-term effect will be irreparable for South Africa if we do not come up soon with a solution which both protects South Africa's security and the industry - it would be devastating," she said.The industry is likely to be affected even more severely by the second batch of new regulations, which took effect on June 1. They require anyone travelling to or from South Africa with a child under the age of 18 to submit an unabridged birth certificate reflecting the particulars of both parents. A parent on their own with a child is supposed to produce a signed letter of consent from the other parent giving their permission for the child to leave their country. For many single parents, this would be a big issue.In a survey conducted by The Telegraph in the UK - a major market for South Africa - 61% of respondents said the new regulations would put them off taking their children to South Africa.story_article_right2The measure is intended to halt child trafficking, but legal experts at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria say the regulations are misguided and "legally incorrect".Tourism executives say the underlying issue is that the government did not consult with the industry before drawing up the new regulations, which were also communicated poorly. Although many countries require tourists to obtain visas in person and submit biometric information, they have the infrastructure to deal with this, while South Africa does not, they maintain."This is an absolute travesty in a freely functioning democracy. The message it sends to investors is an appalling one," said David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Services Association.After being presented with the new visa requirements, major Chinese operators took South Africa out of their brochures, he said.But there might be a glimmer of hope, said Ramawela. Two weeks ago, the government finally responded to the outcry and granted her a meeting with top officials from the departments of home affairs and tourism. "We will meet as a task team, which includes people from the private sector and government," she said.Officials from home affairs and the Tourism Ministry were not available for comment.

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