The Department of Home Affairs is finally waking up to the reality of global economic pragmatism. After the much-criticised stringent visa regime proclaimed in 2014 that nearly crippled the tourism sector, the DHA is beginning to liberalise the policy on visas.
During the recent State visit by the President of the People's Republic of China to South Africa on 24 July, both countries signed a bilateral treaty on the simplification of visa requirements.
This follows a similar visa waiver agreement reached between South Africa and Russia in 2015 that led to an impressive 52% increase in arrivals in 2017. This is the culmination of strong leadership and political will.
A five- to ten-year BRICS business visa is already in place. The introduction of e-visas is also imminent. This visa policy liberalisation is unprecedented and a bold move to shape the conduct of South Africa’s economic diplomacy through tourism promotion.
The new agreement with China makes provision for a long-term multiple-entry visa valid for five years for tourists holding a regular passport as issued to citizens, with each stay not exceeding 90 days. This appears to be the result of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries entered into in 2010, which called for closer co-operation in tourism and people-to-people exchanges.
The significance of the agreement can never be over emphasised given the mammoth size of the Chinese market. China is the most populous country in the world with just over 1.4 billion inhabitants. Over 130 million Chinese travelled abroad in 2017. Chinese are the world's largest tourism spenders abroad since 2012, estimated to have spent over US$300 billion in 2017, an increase from US$261 billion in 2016.
On the downside, only about 97 000 Chinese tourists arrived in South Africa. This is a drop of about 17% compared with 2016. Amongst other contributing factors, the decline is attributed to SA’s stringent visa regime as the elephant in the room.
South Africa is a long-haul destination from major international source markets, a fact that shouldn't escape us when contemplating policy. Instead of adding other layers of bureaucratic impediments, we should be striving toward creating a conducive environment for international tourism as an economic imperative.
The trend globally is toward improving visa facilitation to boost international tourism, which is a catalyst for foreign exchange earnings and job creation. Morocco abolished visa requirements for China with effect from June 2016 and Zimbabwe introduced visas on arrival for Chinese tourists from July 2018.
The new drive to open the South African visa policy space creates an environment conducive to tourism growth. This move should be met with ululations from the sector as much as its antithesis was rightly met with scathing criticism.
The correlation between improving visa facilitation and an increase in international tourist arrivals is well established, both in academic literature and general public discourse. It’s good to see that policy makers in South Africa are finally waking up to this economic reality. This could only lead to economic prosperity and growth.
The State has the supreme power of ordering the mobility of its citizens and access of foreigners to its shores through the issuance of passports and visas respectively. This is a constitutional duty that should be exercised with a delicate balance on public interest and the integrity of state sovereignty.
In the recent past, the exercise of this duty has pitted state organs against each other in public spats and antagonistic utterances by public representatives in South Africa. This was against the well-established ethos of co-operative government. It also went against the international best practice of evidence-based policymaking.
South Africa is investing lots of resources in terms of marketing activities in China as a core market. Making it easy for Chinese to visit South Africa becomes a necessity to match the marketing investment.
But most importantly, policymakers in South Africa should appreciate that policy coherence across all levels of government is not only good for public image but equally significant for economic statecraft.
This is particularly pertinent in the tourism sector, which is very susceptible to outside shocks such as policy changes and uncertainties.
The proponents of tourism posit the sector as the new gold for the South African economy. This is not empty rhetoric. The numbers back up this claim. In 2017 South Africa welcomed 10.3 million foreign tourists, growth of 2.4 % compared with 2016. This directly contributed R136.1 billion (2.9%) to GDP. Also 726 589 jobs directly created within the sector, a growth of 1.4% compared with 2016.
While the recent policy shift is a welcome phenomenon, more visa regulation reforms are necessary for improving South Africa’s global competitiveness as a top destination of choice for tourism, investment and trade. This will assist in addressing the much-touted triple challenges of escalating levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Visa liberalisation in general, and for the lucrative Chinese market in particular, is the future. As the saying in Southern Africa goes: If Morocco did and Zimbabwe did, why can’t South Africa do it?
This column was written in Leso’s personal capacity.