As the South African State Capture Enquiry progresses, deeper details are emerging, and further questions being asked, regarding the ousting of SAA from flying the direct Johannesburg-Mumbai route.

The alleged promise of a Cabinet position for former ANC MP, Vytjie Mentor, in exchange for dropping the SAA Johannesburg-Mumbai route in favour of Indian airline, Jet Airways, cast some light on the influences with which the national carrier has had to contend. The route was subsequently cut and Jet Airways did serve the route

However, contrary to allegations that the route was snatched from SAA in favour of Jet Airways, former SAA Chief Commercial Officer, Sylvain Bosc, told Tourism Update that the route cut had been part of the 90-day Turnaround Action Plan and was rooted in commercial grounds. “We needed to show results quickly, as the cash drain on SAA was dire. We had been tasked with putting a quick plan into action to reduce losses – with the Ebola crisis ripping through the media, SAA’s revenue was collapsing. The two biggest loss-inducing routes were Beijing and Mumbai, as reported by then Acting SAA CEO, Nico Bezuidenhout. So we put through a proposal to shut down these two routes. We, however, needed proper approval from the Minister of Finance, as per the Public Sector Management Act, which states that any big change to the size of a business needs to be authorised by the Minister. Cutting a route was seen as a major change. So we applied for the route to be cut, and upon authorisation in January 2015, this was implemented immediately.”

Bosc commented that while he could see the absence of a direct route affecting Indian arrivals to SA, “the reality is that the traffic flow between India and SA is extremely competitive because of the huge capacity available. So if a passenger wants to fly to SA from any city in India, he or she can pick up a flight cheaply”. Similarly, an observation was made by Savio Pereira, India-based Sales Director of Southern Africa 360 – in Tourism Update’s report back on Stats SA’s Indian arrivals statistics – that “Indians are generally last-minute bookers”, so price may play a more important role than a direct flight.

CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, David Frost, was taking part in the pivotal SA Tourism Roadshow to India at the time the route was suddenly cut. “It was a big thing, as we had 90 South African products connecting with 300 Indian trade representatives – and right in the middle of the roadshow we got news that SAA had pulled the route. This casts a very bad light on the destination we are trying to market, in the midst of marketing it.”

The change in arrivals numbers is significant. “From 2008 to 2012 our arrivals numbers grew at 20% compounded per annum. We were at 106 774 arrivals in 2012; by 2017, five years later, we’ve gone back to 97 000. In contrast, in the same period the Australians achieved 301 000.”

Frost continues that there is an incredible appetite for destination South Africa, but the core issue at the heart of the negative growth rate in India, is the inability of Home Affairs to process visas timeously, in particular in the Mumbai office. “I went to see Minister van Schalkwyk in February 2014 about this very issue, and nothing has been done to fundamentally address the core problem. What we need is the clearly identified problem to be remedied, not reviews, meetings and more and more talks.”

An article appearing in the Sunday Times on July 29, 2018, concurred: “The World Tourism Organisation has predicted that by 2020 there will be 50 million Indian travellers. It is increasing dramatically, but SA is a stagnant market [for inbound Indian tourists],” said [South Africa’s Tourism Minister, Derek] Hanekom