A loss of nearly $133 million this year is being forecast in South Africa's tourist industry, because the country's new visa regulations are deterring visitors.
Visa regulations implemented last year are impractical and likely to result in many tourists choosing other destinations where "travel is easier and more accessible," according to a South Africa Tourism Report, published in July.
People wanting to travel to South Africa are required to provide biometric data in-person when applying for tourist visas. The travel rules are particularly problematic in large countries like China, which only has South African consulates in Beijing and Shanghai.
Spending $165 billion globally in 2014, Chinese tourists are some of the world’s biggest spenders. Because China is one of the largest outbound travel markets in the world, South Africa has invested heavily in marketing there.
The number of Chinese visitors to South Africa increased 15 percent to 152,000 in 2013. But when new visa requirements were implemented, demand dropped by more than 45 percent, says Grant Thornton advisory services company development director Lee-Ann Bac.
“What’s happened is that the tour operators have said, ‘You are making it too difficult for us to travel to your country,'” says Bac. “It has definitely had an impact on our tourism industry and the obstacles have simply become too huge, so people say ‘Let’s just go somewhere else.'”
Further regulations introduced in June this year also stipulate that minors must carry their full or “unabridged” birth certificate when crossing South Africa’s borders. But biometrics and unabridged birth certificates are largely lacking in developing countries. For example, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa together account for 79 percent of all unregistered births, according to UNICEF.
Poor communication about the new requirements has caused confusion and uncertainty for prospective tourists. Anecdotal evidence collected from consulates in China and India by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) suggests the infrastructure to process biometric data is absent and that staff have not been properly briefed on the rules.
“Confusion is causing people to worry. South African travel packages are being removed from various catalogues, and as a result tourism business performance levels and foreign tourist arrivals from some of our key markets have dropped,” says CEO of TBCSA, Mmatšatši Ramawela.
The new birth certificate rules fueled a rare public spat within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party at a time when South African President Jacob Zuma is battling with lethargic economic growth and a crippling energy crisis.
Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said last month the rules had to be changed after visitor numbers dropped, provoking a backlash from Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba who argued they are needed to curtail child trafficking.
A month before the regulations came into effect, the Department of Home Affairs claimed that 30,000 children were trafficked through South Africa every year and the new travel requirement for minors was “protecting [them] from child trafficking.” That claim is unsubstantiated, according to a report by Africa Check, a non-profit fact-checking organization.
The Department of Home Affairs reported that it had detected 23 cases between 2012 and 2015 during a parliamentary debate in June.
While human trafficking has to be tackled, many agree the new travel rules are not the most effective because traffickers usually adopt clandestine and illegal means to smuggle people in and out of the country.
“You are trying to kill the mosquito with a sledgehammer. Where is the real problem? It is the porous land borders. They are just putting in these regulations because according to them [the government], this is what will solve the problem. It is not solving the problem. We are trying to do quick fixes,” argues Ramawela.
Under pressure to mitigate the damage done to the tourism industry, Zuma announced during a mid-year national address on Tuesday, that a ministerial committee would address the “unintended consequences” of the new immigration regulations on various sectors, including tourism and investment.
“If we are going to find the means to address the harm that has already been caused by the regulations, now is the time,” the TBCSA said in a statement. But most analysts believe the negative effects of the regulations will extend into next year, even if they are changed.