South Africa’s tourism industry is bound for significant growth in overseas arrivals in 2019, with the biggest contributing factor being the relaxation of visa rules.
That’s the word from an upbeat tourism minister, Derek Hanekom, speaking to Moneyweb on Wednesday on his forecast for next year.
Hanekom predicts a resurgence in overseas tourist arrivals to SA, with “strong growth beyond the 7% mark” for 2019. He says that while overseas arrival figures for 2018 had taken a hit due to the negative impact of the Western Cape drought and poor messaging in Cape Town around Day Zero, a turnaround is in the works.
“We saw a decline in overseas arrivals in the first half of the year. However, things started to stabilise in the third quarter with arrivals around the same as last year. Figures for October are yet to come in, but with the drought over in the Cape, we’re expecting to see a turnaround for the last quarter of 2018 and strong growth in 2019.”
Hanekom, who was brought back as tourism minister by President Cyril Ramaphosa in February, says the issue around unabridged birth certificates for travelling minors had now been addressed. He believes the overall relaxation of SA’s visa rules and the introduction of electronic or e-visas across the board next year will bolster tourism growth.
“E-visas will be a big game-changer for the tourism industry in 2019. As part of our discussions with the department of home affairs, we are looking at several changes around visa regulations, which will make it easier to travel to SA. Relaxing visa rules, especially for major tourism growth markets like China and India, are crucial to boosting growth,” he says.
Ramaphosa signed a high-level agreement with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Brics summit in Johannesburg in July aimed at easing restrictive visa regulations between the two countries. Hanekom, who led the charge in calling for a review of the department of home affairs’ restrictive regulations around unabridged birth certificates, has been a key influencer in government’s recent moves to relax visa regulations.
He says the changes have been gazetted and are now in effect, thus reducing the burden on foreign tourists to SA. He concedes that there is still some misunderstanding around the changes and says better communication is needed.
“It’s important to note that the regulation has not been abolished, but has been refined to address the issues raised by the tourism industry,” he explains. “We believe we now have the balance right. It has been a long time coming, but I’ve had incredible support from president Ramaphosa on this matter since he was deputy president.”
He says that while unabridged birth certificates for minors travelling to SA are no longer a must-have, there should be some form of identification. “And tourists can’t be turned away if they don’t have the relevant documentation,” he adds, saying they will be given 24 hours to get any missing documentation.
“We understand that some airlines are still demanding unabridged birth certificates, but we have been in contact with the International Air Transport Association (Iata) about this. Our immigration officials are also undergoing extensive training to better understand and handle the changes. We have also distributed explanatory notes about the changes to travel agents and to SA Tourism’s country reps around the world.”
Hanekom stresses that these changes are only the first round – more visa relaxation measures on the cards.
Besides the changes for foreign minors and the introduction of e-visas, the home affairs department has announced that it will be issuing a new 10-year multiple-entry visa to travellers from China and India – and aims for this to be done within five days of application. There are also plans to relax visa requirements for travellers from Nigeria.
Hanekom has hailed the move related to China and India, saying these two countries are the largest and fastest growing tourism source markets globally. He says about 130 million Chinese people travel the globe annually, but that SA only attracts around 100 000 tourists from China at present.
“Countries around the world are recognising the potential of the Chinese outbound tourism market,” he says. “Morocco saw tourist arrivals from China grow by 400% after it introduced a visa-on-arrival option for Chinese tourists. In Ethiopia, you can now apply for a visa online and have it finalised in 24 hours. China and India both present huge growth opportunities for us.”
He says tourism growth from China to SA stagnated in the last year. “But I have no doubt that relaxing visa regulations with China will boost Chinese arrivals. In addition to the latest visa changes, we are discussing several other options with the department of home affairs.
Schengen instead of SA visa
One option being considered is for SA to allow Chinese tourists who already have a Schengen visa into the country. The concept of recognising a Schengen visa is similar to visa relaxation moves in Mexico, which in 2010 started allowing tourists from other nations who had US visas into the country.
Hanekom explains that for many tourists from China and India, South Africa may not be the first country they plan to visit. If they have a Schengen visa, and if it is recognised in SA, they won’t have to apply for a SA visa – making a visit to this country a more appealing prospect. But Hanekom stresses that the concept is still being discussed.
Other aspects that would bolster tourism growth next year include increased international airline connectivity and SA possibly hosting the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament.
SA has seen increased global air connectivity at all three of its major international airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Cape Town International – SA’s fastest growing airport in terms of foreign arrivals – secured a direct flight to Hong Kong in November. King Shaka International secured Durban’s first direct route to Heathrow London in decades with British Airways commencing flights in October, while Alitalia recommenced flights to OR Tambo earlier this year after a decade-long hiatus.
“It’s great to see all these new routes coming in, which is vital for boosting tourism to SA as a long-haul destination,” says Hanekom. “Now, we just have to get SAA right.”
He says he is fully behind public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and the SAA board in their efforts to turn the airline around.
“I’ve had discussions with the minister regarding looking at reintroducing SAA’s direct flight between Johannesburg and Mumbai. It should not have been discontinued as India is a key market for us, but we don’t have a single direct flight to the sub-continent.”