In the wake of last week’s embarrassing U-turn by Tourism Minister, Derek Hanekom, on a so-called review of government’s tourism-killing visa regulations, it is now clear that the government rushed into issuing these regulations before ensuring that all stakeholders were on board.
Minister Hanekom’s flip-flop on a review – which was promised by President Zuma during his SONA speech earlier this year – shows that not even cabinet itself knows where to stand in relation to the new regulations. It is now time for the chief implementer of these regulations, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, to admit defeat, cut his losses, and suspend the regulations once and for all.
These new draconian regulations, which came into effect on June 1, require parents entering South Africa to provide an unabridged birth certificate for all travelling children. In addition, South Africans and foreigners have to provide details of the child's father and mother. This applies even when both parents are travelling with their children.
Moreover, visitors are now required to apply for their visas in person, which causes further unnecessary travel expenses for those who do not live near South African embassies, consulates, and visa centres or, worse, live in countries without these facilities.
No one can, in good conscience, fault government’s intention behind such regulations. Security and prevention of child trafficking are very important issues, and intervention is required in this regard. However, the way Minister Gigaba has gone about addressing these issues is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as already pointed out. Minister Gigaba’s advisers let him down by not informing him of the unintended consequences and international best practice. The collateral damage caused by these regulations cannot be ignored.
The Tourism Business Council indicated that the country might lose up to 270 000 international tourists and, in turn, lose 21 000 jobs each year – costing the country R9.7 billion.
StatsSA's tourism figures for 2014 indicate that arrivals from China are already on the decline. Disturbingly, Air China cancelled its much-anticipated direct flights to South Africa just days before the implementation of the new travel regulations, citing the onerous visa requirements as a deterrent, which the airline feared would impact on its revenue on the route.
The effects of the new regulations have been felt across all spheres of the industry with a recent poll conducted last week by The Telegraph in the United Kingdom demonstrating that the majority of participants are dissuaded from visiting South Africa as a result. The poll asked “Will the new rules put you off taking your child to South Africa?" and the results came back with an alarming 61% opting for 'yes'. The report further warned British families that they would be affected by the new travel requirements and listed “long delays and bureaucratic entanglement” as reasons.
The latest developments in this saga now suggest that the regulations pose an imminent threat to South Africa’s airlift capacity, something that government has neatly sidestepped.
The facts are on table – these regulations will continue to stifle the tourism industry and erode our country’s brand. Yet against all good advice and empirical evidence, government persists.
The pertinent question remains – are these “unintended consequences” truly unintended if they were foreseeable? This is the question Ministers Gigaba and Hanekom face as they watch their new visa regulations dismantle South Africa’s tourism industry and threaten the 1,5 million South Africans it employs.
The mantra from Home Affairs appears to be that "no one has come forward to explain what the impact of the proposed regulations will be". But they continue to ignore the loud outcry from tourism trade partners in every corner of the world.
The DA has continuously fought to have these regulations suspended in order for our proposed alternative measures to be considered – to strike a balance between our country's safety and tourism facilitation. To date, our calls have fallen on deaf ears.
But there are alternatives: Instead of the current onerous procedure, current best practice could be adopted whereby biometric data is collected on arrival at airports as in other countries. This is a highly efficient and cost effective alternative that serves the same purpose as current regulations. The financial cost of introducing biometric data capturing on arrival would be much lower than the economic cost of scaring off tourists, trade and investment. In addition to this, electronic visa application systems could be set up to simplify the process without compromising security concerns.
Other countries that collect in-person biometrics either have a significant number of visa centres in China and India or have moved to rendering biometric data on arrival. The UK and the US have 12 and five visa application centres in India respectively. But it is not just developed countries that embrace the new technology. India has just announced that it will soon have nine airports that can deal with e-visas and biometric data collection upon arrival.
Australia on the other hand does not require biometric visas from countries from where it seeks to grow tourism, such as SA, India and China. Tourists from just about every country in the world can apply for Australian e-visas online.
All of this points to a world that understands the competitive nature of the tourism sector — without compromising security.
In the face of this, it is thus peculiar that government cannot tell us is which other countries have such onerous requirements. We can find no evidence.
Two critical questions remain unanswered. Firstly, was a proper economic and regulatory impact assessment study undertaken? The Board of Airline Representatives of Southern Africa estimates that up to 20% of air travel to SA involves families with children and may therefore be affected. The value in terms of tourism receipts translates into a R7 billion loss in tourism contribution to GDP and foreign exchange earnings. Job losses are a certainty, not a possibility.
Secondly, which stakeholders were consulted in the process from its inception? There was no formal engagement or consultation with any of the tourism industry associations. The tourism sector represents 9% of our GDP and one in every 10 jobs in the country. Surely, some form of consultation with the industry ought to have happened.
It is quite clear that these regulations were implemented prematurely, without sufficient research, consultation and deliberation.
We are therefore left with no option but for the regulations to be suspended with immediate effect. This will allow for fresh consultation and a comprehensive economic and regulatory impact study.
In my continuous attempts to ensure these regulations are revisited, I submitted an official complaint to the Tourism Complaints Officer to investigate and address the regulations. This followed my meeting with the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee, in which I put forward the DA’s submissions on the regulations, and the negative impact they will have on the tourism industry. I also appealed to the Chairpersons of both the Tourism and Home Affairs Portfolio Committees to call a joint sitting for further deliberation on possible alternatives.
Sadly, the collateral damage is far reaching and ongoing. Estimates are that the government will have to invest more than R40m in a public relations campaign to help repair the damage caused by negative perceptions of these new measures in the global market. A critical role of government is to successfully brand our country as an attractive travel and trade destination.
In the private sector, we have this habit of listening to our customers. It’s time Minister Gigaba and Minister Hanekom listened to theirs and urgently suspended the regulations.