Home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba on Tuesday failed to live up to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise of drastic changes to South Africa’s visa requirements, leaders in the tourism industry said.
He effectively retained the requirement for unabridged birth certificates for minors and failed to include crucial tourism markets in the list of countries for which visa requirements would be waived, according to three leading tourism industry associations.
Some controversial visa regulations, introduced by Gigaba in 2014 during his first stint as home affairs minister, have been blamed for a drop in tourism numbers.
In 2015 it was estimated that the regulations had cost the industry R7.5 billion, with 13 000 travellers denied access to South Africa within the first year of the new rules. Thereafter, they seemingly lost interest and headed to other destinations, tourism leaders told Moneyweb.
Despite strong opposition from the tourism industry at the time, Gigaba stuck to his guns and refused to relax the visa requirements.
Last week, however, Ramaphosa announced that visa regulations would be relaxed as part of a crucial economic stimulus package aimed at easing travel for tourists, business people and academics. Gigaba was expected to flesh this out during a media briefing on Tuesday.
His announcement has however been met with responses ranging from disappointment to outrage.
He avoided the use of the term ‘unabridged birth certificate’ in relation to foreign minors entering the country, but said that instead of requiring all foreign travelling minors to carry documents proving parental consent “we will rather strongly recommend that travellers carry this documentation”.
He said immigration officials will only insist on the documentation in exceptional, high-risk cases, and that rather than denying them entrance, travellers would be offered the opportunity to prove parental consent.
David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa), called this “an obfuscated message that serves only to confuse travellers, much in the way it did when the regulation was first introduced three years ago.
“Issuing an international travel advisory only in October, after today’s vague statements that a UBC [unabridged birth certificate] may be requested by immigration officials, simply reintroduces the confusion we fought many years to dispel, and undermines President Ramaphosa’s attempts to make it easier for foreign travellers to visit South Africa.
“Our position from the start has been that this draconian, heavy-handed and nonsensical policy to combat child trafficking has no place in the modern economy. Rather, it should be dealt with through proper policing. Semantic changes to the regulation are not the solution.
“We believe the requirement to produce unabridged birth certificates must be eliminated immediately across the board to ensure South Africa’s competitiveness as a tourism destination and remove any confusion around the requirements for foreign minors travelling to South Africa.”
Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, interim CEO of the Tourism Business Council of SA, said Gigaba’s announcement boiled down to no change in the requirement for an unabridged birth certificate that has seen thousands of travellers turned away at the airport. He called for it to be scrapped in totality. “You cannot patch something that doesn’t work,” he said.
June Crawford, CEO of the Board of Airline Representatives of SA, joined those criticising the lack of change in the requirement for the unabridged birth certificate.
Gigaba also announced that visas won’t be necessary for visitors from several countries (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, São Tomé and Principe, Tunisia, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, State of Palestine, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Belarus, Georgia and Cuba).
Frost welcomed this, but said: “We would have liked to have seen an immediate visa waiver for visitors from the Middle East and New Zealand, a source market which has seen a decline of 30% in arrivals since visas were introduced.”
Tshivhengwa also welcomed especially the inclusion of Middle Eastern countries, but asked why New Zealand, Kenya and Nigeria were not included.
Gigaba further announced that visitors from China and India would in future no longer need to apply for visas in person. Applications could be sent by courier and biometric data would be recorded on arrival in South Africa.
Tshivhengwa welcomed this, saying that it would save prospective visitors from having to travel long distances within their countries to personally submit their visa applications before travelling to South Africa.
According to Crawford, the biometrics on arrival plan had been announced earlier, but Tshivhengwa said the department doesn’t have the resources to manage the process and that it will result in very long queues at airports. “You cannot implement something you cannot manage,” he said.
Frost said: “Our key markets of India and China remain constrained because of the inability of [the department of] home affairs to issue visas timeously. We need urgent implementation of measures to improve visa requirements for these markets so that President Ramaphosa’s vision of tourism contributing to the growth of South Africa’s economy can become a reality now, not later.”
Gigaba also announced that longer term multiple-entry visas would be available to several categories of visitors.
While Tshivhengwa welcomed this, he said South Africa’s restrictive immigration laws have greatly hampered the country’s attractiveness as a tourism destination and impacted the number of tourists who choose to visit. “It creates a barrier to entry, with financial and/or opportunity cost that a prospective tourist needs to overcome in order to travel to South Africa.
“Making announcements regarding changes to immigration regulations, without providing proper clarity, is frankly too little too late.”