Govt must wake up on e-visas
The ongoing failure of the government to implement a tourist-friendly visa system is stalling the growth of the local hospitality industry, says Lee Zama, who this month became the first woman to head the Federated Hospitality Association of SA (Fedhasa).
"For inbound tourism, where we're competing with other destinations, the big challenge is getting e-visas sorted, because that way you're opening up market access."
In China, there are only two hubs where people wishing to visit SA can get visas, she says.
"It's such a vast country that this makes it difficult for many tourists. If the visa process was electronic it would allow far more people to apply for visas and come to SA."
The Tourism Business Council told the government at the jobs summit that e-visas would boost tourist numbers, jobs and economic growth.
President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned e-visas in his state of the nation address last month.
"We just want to see it happen," says Fedhasa's new CEO. "The industry is looking forward to seeing e-visas being implemented in earnest."
Discussions with the department of home affairs have been "ongoing for quite some time", as well as at other levels of government, with no discernible progress.
Zama recently met the provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal to emphasise the enormous job opportunities a thriving tourism industry would create, and urge them to "put their voice to national government to make sure that systems that allow us to grow are implemented".
The failure to implement e-visas is highly frustrating for the industry, she says.
"The advantages of technology like this to boost tourism are so obvious that we would have expected e-visas to be implemented way earlier.
"It will open taps to people who otherwise are impossible to reach. E-visas would be a total game-changer."
The job-creating potential of a thriving hospitality industry is "so major you'd have thought that government would have rushed to make sure the e-visa happens. But in government the wheels turn slowly."
SA is lagging behind Kenya and Rwanda, which have started, "or are on the verge of", implementing e-visas.
Kenya is SA's fiercest competitor for wildlife tourism, and "with e-visas a lot more tourists will be going to them. So it is absolutely pertinent for us to get going and have it done."
But e-visas won't end the massively damaging confusion around unabridged birth certificates, Zama adds.
"They still have legislation requiring immigration officials to request this. So we need amendments to reduce the amount of paperwork required for children to travel to SA and out."
When Ramaphosa became president, he set up a task team to look at laws impeding economic growth. "I do hope this is one of the laws they're looking at," she says.
Increasing the flow of tourists from outside the country becomes more important as SA's moribund economy strangles domestic tourism.
One of Zama's priorities will be to grow the number of small, black-owned businesses in the industry. The barriers are access to finance and markets.
In addition to the industry's own private initiatives, local and provincial levels of government need to offer more assistance.
"A small guy sitting somewhere doesn't have money to market his establishment. The funds are not there. Government has to be involved in a lot more areas."
There are government initiatives, but "they need to market them better for people to know about them".
She says the government has begun to appreciate the disastrous impact of crime on tourism, but though it's grateful for all the "talk shops and initiatives", the industry wants to see results.
"We want to see a lot more visible policing. We want to encourage tourism where people can go to establishments and stay up late without the fear of, 'I need to get out of here before it gets dark.'
"Because that means those establishments are losing business, because they're supposed to stay open till late to generate revenue.
"Tourists have to feel secure. We're looking forward to a lot more engagement with the police to improve protection for people in this country." And for the establishments, hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, in which hospitality businesses invest so much capital.
In addition to crime, the problems facing businesses in the hospitality industry are numerous, she says.
"Getting a liquor licence from some municipalities takes quite a while."
This may sound trivial, but Zama, who has been in the industry for 25 years and ran a hotel after graduating from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with a BSc in dietetics and postgraduate diplomas in marketing and business management, knows how easily this can kill your business.
"If you're running a restaurant and you don't have a licence for a year, it means you're losing out on revenue which can really carry your business."
Dysfunctional municipalities are making it extremely hard to survive in the hospitality industry, she says.
"Your refuse doesn't get collected. There are issues around the nonpayment of electricity bills and Eskom switching off municipalities. If a municipality is not providing water services, how do you handle your laundry? It's a big issue."
The impact of dysfunctional municipalities on businesses is "a huge subject. It's a thesis on its own. Many theses, actually, not just one.
"Functioning municipalities are everything to businesses. Everything. And government knows what this means, of course they know.
"They need to make sure that non-functioning municipalities are overhauled to make sure that business functions.
"You can't have dysfunctional municipalities and expect businesses to thrive."
Then there's Airbnb, which is a threat to her members because it is unregulated.
"Any unregulated business sector will cause a threat to a sector that is regulated with laws by the government.
"A lot of our members have made huge investments to have hotels built. So if you're now going to be losing business to unregulated structures it does raise questions."
All players in the industry must be subject to the same regulations "so that the fields are levelled", Zama says.