Tourism could reboot SA in no time at all; it’s time it was allowed to

It would take some minor changes, such as easier visa access.
Tourism’s contribution to the South African economy has been declining. Picture: Mike Hutchings, Reuters

With relatively little effort, tourism could add a percentage or two to economic growth. With a bit more effort it could add another percentage point or two on top of that. All it would require initially is making it easier for foreigners to get visas. Astonishingly simple, yet it hasn’t happened despite years of pounding on the doors at key government departments.

Part of the problem is that government doesn’t recognise tourism as an ‘industry’ in its own right, so it ends up a creature of bureaucratic inertia. The tourism infrastructure in SA is among the best in the world, and there is spare capacity. It needs hardly any new investment to add another million or two visitors to last year’s count of 10.7 million. Just make it easier for them to get in.

President Cyril Ramaphosa wants to see a doubling in tourism arrivals to 21 million over the next decade. That’s eminently doable according to industry analysts. It would boost employment numbers by two million, and trigger downstream investment in manufacturing and agriculture to accommodate the need for additional buses, car, food, accommodation and the like.

Tourism worldwide accounts for roughly 10% of GDP, and 8.6% in SA. The SA figure should be around 12% or even 15%. Tourism’s contribution to the economy has grown impressively over the last two decades, but has been declining in recent years. In SA, the sector employs 726 000 directly, with a further 1.5 million employed indirectly in downstream services such as food supply, retail and security.

Tourism’s potential to change the economic contours of the country has been discussed for decades, so why hasn’t it happened?

Grant Thornton prepared the graph below showing how tourism arrivals responded to key events such as the Soccer World Cup, the Cape Town drought and the introduction of tougher visa requirements for countries such as China.

Source: Grant Thornton (UBC: Unabridged birth certificate requirement for minors). Graph shows percentage growth or decline in arrivals.

It’s clear tourism is a victim of SA’s capacity for scoring own goals.

In the supposed interests of national security, former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba in 2016 decided prospective visitors from countries such as China had to apply in person at our consulate offices in those countries. That wiped more than R1 billion from tourism revenues over the next six months. Those restrictions have since been eased, with nine visa processing centres opened in China. But still SA attracted just 90 000 from each of China and India last year – a fraction of what it could be with a more sensible visa programme.

SA barely features on the travel itinerary for Chinese travellers, who are expected to number 300 million by 2030. Since most countries fear being flooded with illegal immigrants from China and India, they too require visas for visitors from these countries – yet somehow manage to attract vastly greater numbers from these key outbound tourism markets. Last year Australia attracted 1.4 million Chinese visitors, all of them requiring visas, largely by making it easy to apply online in their own language.

SA’s rigid visa policy towards India and China is costing us billions of rands a year in lost revenue.

There has been some reprieve. Parents visiting SA are no longer required to carry birth certificates for their children, as was the case.


Another problem is that SA is a long-haul destination for moneyed tourists from North America, Europe and Asia. Yet one could say the same of Thailand, where tourism historically ranges as high as 17% of GDP, or Vietnam (9.4%). Other long-haul destinations are clearly doing some things to attract visitors that SA is not. Most of them offer low-cost charter packages covering flight and accommodation, something that SA has yet to fully exploit.

Consider that France attracted 90 million visitors last year, equivalent to 130% of its population. In the UK and Thailand, visitor numbers are equal to roughly 60% of their respective populations. The equivalent figure in SA is 18%.

A tourism growth strategy published by the Tourism Business Council outlines a number of steps that could radically reshape the sector. The easiest and most important of these is relaxing visa requirements by introducing electronic visa applications, expanding the visa waiver programme and recognising visas already issued to other destinations, such as the Schengen Area (26 European states), the US, UK, Australia and Canada.

Visa exemptions

Though SA is a member of the Brics bloc, visitors from Russia and Brazil are allowed entry without visas, but the same is not true for those from China and India. This is a major obstacle to increasing visitor numbers. Most of the top 10 tourism markets – including the US, UK, Germany, France, Netherlands, Brazil, Australia, Canada and southern African countries – are given visa exemptions. It has been proposed that the visa waiver programme be extended to a further 19 countries, and in fact seven of these were recently approved, including New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Ghana, São Tomé and Principe.

Many of the remaining problems inhibiting faster tourism growth are regulatory. Some of the proposed changes will smooth the path for tour operators obtaining licences for vehicle registrations and renewals. It currently takes months for licences to be approved, and several tour operators have closed down as a result. Operators are required to provide black economic empowerment (BEE) certificates, proof of market demand and letters of support from the industry association. This unnecessary bureaucratic clutter is finally getting the attention it deserves, with a proposal on the table to set up a multi-departmental national tourism body to accredit operators and implement self-regulation.

While other countries have solved the issue of parents travelling with minors, Department of Home Affairs officials are not always aware of their own regulations and travel advisories that allow easier access for minors. Additional documentation should only be requested under suspicious circumstances, says Gillian Saunders, an independent tourism advisor. “The travel trade and IATA [International Air Transport Association] are still advising visitors to carry a birth certificate if only one parent or another adult is travelling with a child. They do not feel confident to push family travel yet,” she says.

‘Quick interim measure’

The recognition of Schengen, USA, UK, Canada and Australia visas for visitors to SA would serve as “a quick interim measure to improve access to SA for many nationals of visa-requiring countries who already hold valid visas from the above countries/areas”, adds Saunders. “And, if implemented, could continue.”

The Department of Tourism has started working on a China-ready strategy, and extra resources are being ploughed into dealing with Chinese visa applications.

Air transport policy is another issue that needs urgent overhaul. What is happening nationally is fragmented and inconsistent, and this is driving access to OR Tambo International Airport in an ad-hoc fashion. Cape Town International has achieved excellent air access, and King Shaka International in Durban is fairly active, but traffic to other centres is lagging far behind.

Given what is at stake, and the relative ease with which tourism could ignite a broader economic recovery, it is a wonder it has taken us this long to wake up to the obvious realities staring us in the face.

Source: Grant Thornton



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100%. but at the end of the day the only conclusion you can reach is we’re not doing it because the objective is not to grow the economy. It’s something else.

The entire Zimbabwe economy for years was geared to supplying the needs of just one man, Bob Mugabe. That’s all that mattered. Keeping him in power and meeting his every whim. All the rest was just incidental.

For the last 9 years we have served Zuma and the ANC and it’s cadres. That’s what the economy is there for – to serve the ANC. Inequality, unemployment and poverty are just a war cry to get the masses out to vote. The government exits to maximize things for the ANC; they will never deliver to the masses. That was never the idea.

And so we can happily kill off tourism, mining, manufacturing and the like as long as there’s still enough for the ruling clique. In fact it’s better that way, because now we can blame the failure to deliver on third forces, apartheid spies, white monopoly capital, Lancaster house, and we have a common object of loathing that’s not the government of the day. That means we get voted back in again.

This is very much the African model seen in many countries around us and to the North. Think Swaziland. And that’s why their unfree and unfair elections habitually get a green light from South Africa – we are brothers in arms and understand each other to perfection.

If we were actually trying to do something for the people of this country we would make south Africa the easiest country in the world to visit, the easiest place to start up a business, the easiest place to hire and fire labour, and one of the countries with the lowest tax rate.

But that’s not the idea

Lot of tourists are looking for the 3 “S”, sea, sand and sun. That is the major reason most people visit Thailand. I would add one more S, security. In the major tourist destinations people can walk around the dark, actually places like Spain, Thailand, the Greek islands make most of their income from the nightlife. On the other hand in SA the first thing a tourist is told, don’t go out after dark, watch your valuables and other safety warnings.

Nail. Head. Without crime SA would be a tourist’s paradise. Mount Nelson invasion by SEVEN armed men anyone?

I see nothing about addressing crime…

only about 28 murders in areas in and around Cape Town over the weekend despite a strong police presence in crime-ridden areas…previous weekend about 43. Doesn’t sound to me like an improvement more like a battle field.

My friends from America see all the NEGATIVE NEWS on crime and corruption and are afraid to come. BUT NO ONE LISTENS.

With criminals in the Eastern Cape targeting guest houses with foreign guests we have experienced a 67% decrease in bookings over previous years for our establishments in the greater Addo region.

We have also had foreign guests complain that most properties resemble prisons with the security measures establishments are forced to employ to ensure the safety of their guests.

Easing up on documentary requirements is a step in the right direction but most prospective foreign tourists would think twice about visiting a country where crime is a real problem.

We had family from overseas visit 2 years ago. They had their money stolen in a CT hotel, needless to say, they said they will never come back.

Thanks SA criminals! Much appreciated for destroying this country!

South Africa’s tourist loses are Kenya, Tanzania’s and general East Africa’s gains.

Also, South Africa used to be cheap for tourists, it no longer the case. Is some cases its cheaper for south africans to go holiday in Europe that it is for South Africans to holiday locally.

Namibia seem to be doing things right too.

100% correct . my wife and i paid R300 each at a Bavarian B n B .
The service was great and with a smile.
The SA tourism industry has shot itsself in the head.
I cannot understand the attraction of Cape Town – so overrated and expensive

Potholed roads, violent community protests and dropping accommodation standards in Kruger are hardly enticing tourists to Mpumlanga. KNP is a major provider of employment and cannot afford to not be a destination. With Moumalanga a major ANC stronghold are we surprised there’s no apparent concern?

With some imaginative management, tourism could be the premier source of foreign exchange and a great positive contributor to our GDP.
In addition it would reduce our carbon footprint, by making “dirty” industries less attractive and promoting greener based industries for the benefit of all.
We are in an almost unique position due to the nature of our diversified wild life, scenery and floral diversity, all of which are globally under threat, to take full advantage of a platform upon which to build a really sustainable economy with great job opportunities and in addition providing protection to counter the effects of the fast approaching threat of global warming.
We have a great opportunity to bring about a new focus on the fundamentals of being able to supply a good life for all. Let’s not waste it !!

I’m pleased this is being highlighted again. I wrote an article in the Soapbox section here in April 2010 but sadly no one listened. Here is an extract.

So what to do with all the wonderful stuff and potential we have here? The old wisecrack “when life hands you a lemon – make a lemonade” comes to mind. And in my humble opinion that’s pretty much what we have here. The question is …. how to make the lemonade?

Well, I think that should actually be quite easy. I think I’m right in saying that tourism brings in more revenue today than the gold mining industry; which is on the way out. And this is the way to go. Who wants to spend a dangerous working day 4kms underground if you have the option of driving a group of Japanese visitors around the Waterfront and taking them back to your own B&B in the township? Why on earth are we trying to compete making t-shirts, trainers and hideous kitchen equipment with people who have been world leaders for the past 1500 years? The Americans failed – why should we succeed? Why develop smelters that use the equivalent amount of electricity as a city when we can sell them the raw materials and let them screw up their own atmosphere? ( I know, I know, it’s all our atmosphere … for another time)

Our lemons are the millions of poor struggling and untrained citizens …. the sugar, the crystal glasses, cherries, exotic fruit, fancy straws, linen napkins etc. are the already well-established tourist drawcards: the game parks and lodges which are undeniably unique and professionally run, the natural beauty .. Drakensberg, Wild Coast, Okavango, Namib Desert, the Karoo, the Kruger National Park. The Cape wine industry with its network of farms, event venues and accommodation, I think we have the biggest whale migration in the world, the Extreme Sports calendar- we have so many ways in which to kill yourself while testing your body to its utmost …. marathons, shark diving, bungee jumping, surfing, kite surfing, hang gliding ….365 days a year. I’m sure you get the picture that the list is endless. And all we have to do is market ourselves professionally to the millions of emerging wealthy Asians, be reasonable in our pricing, keep our assets well maintained, clean, safe and instil a culture of what is supposed to be legendary across ancient Africa …. happy welcoming, warm people, eager to interact with and please visitors.

Let’s stay in our small pond doing what we know best. What we have here is the real Disney World. It’s ours and we don’t have to pay royalties. It’s time we started marketing it properly and maximising the tourist Mecca that has dropped into our laps. I’m not suggesting that we close our successful industries down, rather saying let’s not even bother to compete where we know we have little chance of succeeding. We need to play to our strengths.

All it needs is a little vision and the same input we are giving already. We don’t need to work harder to uplift the masses and as a consequence the mood of entire nation, just a little smarter.

better luck this time Ciaran …

Just like the article, nothing about addressing crime, which must be the first step.

It’s understood by everyone in social services that the main driver of crime is poverty and creating alternative employment of which tourism is an easy entry could be a start.

While I understand that crime may be a symptom of poverty I fail to understand how tourism is an easy entry to alternative employment.

Surely retail would be a far easier path than tourism. I mean you only have to buy 1 sweet for R1.00 and sell it for R2.00 to make tangible profit, whereas with tourism you have to have some level of knowledge about your targeted area of tourism, an advertising budget or means to reach your target market, a vehicle or accommodation, insurance, security of guests, etc.

Will be pointless if everyone is suddenly doing the exact same thing. You need to be cheaper, better or different to be successful and its again pointless to be so cheap that you cannot earn a living.

And here’s the real kicker. I can get a government grant for doing absolutely nothing.

Every political speech has a section dedicated to expounding that things will be made easier to do business, get tourism going, less red tape and so on, but nothing happens!
Ramaphosa wants to double tourists to 21 m.
What exactly are his minions doing to make it happen?
Stating the goal and talking about it does not make it happen!
We have GEAR etc (I can’t recall all the acronyms) but they were/are all wish list driven. Just like the SONA.
Don’t plan it to death – do something!!!!

First sort out crime, before you can think of tourism or any economic progress for that matter! People from Europe and the USA won’t fly halfway around the world to see Table Mountain just to be mugged halfway up! Catch a wake up!

I have many foreign friends but i have become increasingly negative when they inquire about holidaying in SA.
I am more interested in the welfare of my friends than telling a lie to boost an undeserving cause.
Also many of them who are repeat visitors say how unfriendly the locals in the tourist industry especially Kruger have become and that they expect a tip just for doing their job and how poor service is.

End of comments.





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