There is huge potential for tourism growth to the Southern African region from the rest of Africa but challenges such as visas and more liberalised skies need to be addressed.

This was the general consensus from tourism bodies and airline associations who spoke to Tourism Update following the release earlier this week of the 2019 Africa Visa Openness Index published by the African Union Commission and African Development Bank (AfDB).

The report shows that, for the first time, African travellers have liberal access to over half (51%) the continent, making it easier for African business travellers, investors, students and tourists to travel. This is a six-percentage point improvement on the 2016 figures, where only 45% of the continent was open.

The top three performers were Seychelles, Benin and Senegal. Mozambique (10) is the top performer in the Southern African Development Community. South Africa ranks 35th out of 54 countries.

‘Poor performer’

“Countries need to make more progress on visa regimes, including introducing visas-on-arrival. By breaking down borders, Africa will be able to capitalise on gains from regional integration initiatives such as the Single African Air Transport Market, and the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons,” said AfDB President, Akinwumi Adesina.

Chief Executive of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA), Chris Zweigenthal, agreed, highlighting that South Africa was a poor performer. “There is a reticence to change the visa regulations.” He said while visa waivers were being announced for travellers to South Africa – following concerted efforts by the travel, tourism and aviation sectors – they did not focus on the large target markets.

The Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and the Ministry of Tourism are two of the organisations working with the aviation sector, with TBCSA CEO,  Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, pointing out that it was critical to home in on the big African tourism markets in West and East Africa.

Collaboration

“TBCSA and its partners are continuously looking a potential market and presenting the economic case to South African Tourism to lobby for more visa openness and improved access.”

According to Tshivhengwa, the SADC countries were mostly open regarding visas but the African air markets further afield offered massive potential for leisure and business travel. “I know that there are negotiations for visa-free access for Ghana and Nigeria that might soon be on the table.”

Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said her department’s target of doubling the number of annual foreign tourist arrivals to South Africa to 21 million by 2030 was only achievable should sticking points, such as the e-visa system, visa waivers, safety issues and marketing be prioritised.

“In fact, the results of research projects indicate that when these key issues are prioritised, the direct tourism GDP impact would be R31bn (€19bn) in 2030,” she said at a recent event held with members of the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (Barsa).

Ease of access

CEO of Barsa, June Crawford, pointed to Saudi Arabia as an example of what could be achieved through liberal visa policies. “Saudi Arabia introduced e-visas this year.  In the first week, 27 000 applications were received and 13 000 came from China – which is one of South Africa’s key tourism target markets,” she said.

However, visa openness is only one aspect of ease of access for the African leisure and business travel sector. Air connectivity also remains a challenge, added Crawford, noting that there had been much discussion on the subject but there had yet to be significant progress from an implementation perspective.

“The African Union-driven Single African Air Transport Market project now has 31 country signatories, but there has been no increase or co-operation between African airlines to create and develop this connectivity,” commented Crawford.

‘Airline alliances between African airlines should be put back on the agenda and pursued with determination.”