Why don't we pluck the low-hanging fruit of tourism?

03 February 2019 - 00:00

Last month the Guardian, one of Britain's largest newspapers and once the darling of the ANC in its well-lubricated exile headquarters in London, published a plaintive letter from a woman whose family had been barred from travelling to SA because, at Gatwick Airport, they could not produce birth certificates for their children.
It was tragic. They rushed back home to get the certificates but had to book another flight the next day. Worse, because they hadn't made their original flight they were "no-shows" and their return was cancelled so they had to pay again to go home.
No recalcitrant South African home affairs official was involved in any of this. So feared and confused is our immigration regime that airlines still enforce old rules for fear of being forced to carry home travellers who don't have the right papers. It is madness.
We know the story. It started with Naledi Pandor at home affairs. Apparently thousands of children were being trafficked through OR Tambo so she prepared stringent rules to stop it. You could not move a child into or out of SA without an unabridged birth certificate and, if you were alone with the child, legal affidavits from the other parent allowing you to travel with him or her.
It was the work of lunatics. Pandor was only stopped from implementing the rules by the 2014 election. She was moved to another ministry and the totally shiny Malusi Gigaba took over. His first act was to implement the regulations. In a way he had no choice, the mechanisms were all in place.
But then he defended them in the face of the blindingly obvious economic damage they were doing. He was deaf to all reason. He then became an improbable finance minister and when his patron was removed from office, President Cyril Ramaphosa shifted Gigaba from the Treasury back to home affairs.
He was asked to soften up the Pandor rules and came up with an absolute mess. Foreign visitors were advised to follow the old rules "just in case" some local immigration officer didn't like the cut of this or that jib. South Africans are still subject to full-on Pandor derangement.
It is beyond grotesque. Children are being trafficked all over Southern Africa and it is a major problem that can only be tackled by the police. They are not being trafficked through OR Tambo.
The worst of it is that changing these rules is the one big thing Ramaphosa could have totally fixed since becoming president one full year ago, and he hasn't. For crying out loud.
The fact is that tourism is the only industry, the only industry, that can help us out of the economic hole Jacob Zuma drove us into. Tourism is an export. Only we don't have to move it. We simply have to make it as easy as possible for people to come here and spend money. Or am I missing something?
It's all very well to dream up plans to beneficiate this or that mineral and, like poor Rob Davies at trade & industry, constantly draw up the same plans to re-industrialise the country. But Davies lives in Groundhog Day. We are not industrialising.
Harvard University's Center for International Development has developed an "atlas of economic complexity". It tells governments the truth about how well they're doing. The centre describes its atlas as a measure of "the knowledge in a society as expressed in the products it makes. The economic complexity of a country is calculated based on the diversity of exports. Countries able to sustain a diverse range of productive know-how are able to produce a wide diversity of goods, including complex products few other countries can make."
In 2016, after how many Groundhog reports from the department of trade & industry, SA ranked 66th in economic complexity. We just beat Trinidad and Tobago. In 1995 we ranked 47th, ahead then of even China and Thailand. And we still go backwards. We exported $110bn (about R1.5-trillion) in value in 2016. Tourism accounted for 7.17% of that. According to the atlas, we exported $161bn in 2013. In 2004, travel and tourism accounted for 9.56% of our exports.
By contrast, Thailand exported $302bn in 2016 and tourism accounted for 16% of that, even as its economy rose in complexity, according to the atlas, to rank 27th, ahead of Canada, Spain and even Israel.
So let's not kid ourselves, Mr President. Under ANC rule our economy has become increasingly simple. To reverse that we need export dollars, and tourists are the quickest way we're going to get them. Do something, for goodness sake, and stop this insanity.

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