South Africa's onerous visa regime for minor travelers continues to hobble its all-important tourism industry. Amendments published last month may look like good news, but read them closely and – industry insiders say – not nearly enough has changed.
South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs has done the country’s tourism industry no favors since 2015, when it introduced a new visa regime requiring minor travelers entering or leaving the country to produce a so-called unabridged birth certificate (UBC) listing the personal details of both parents.
Thanks to poor communication and an abundance of caution by the airlines, on whose shoulders the burden of checking documents fell, the impact on arrivals was swift and devastating.
Industry sources estimate that upwards of 13,000 travelers were turned away at check-in desks for having incorrect paperwork.
“We’ve had a number of clients who – even though they had the correct information from us – still did not have their documents in order and were turned away at the airport,” said Sean Kritzinger, co-owner and executive chairman of luxury inbound tour operator Giltedge Africa. “Once they had received the correct documentation, they were able to travel. Yet it has had a negative effect on travel to South Africa. Divorced, separated or single families, especially, will probably not bother to travel to South Africa due to the amount of paperwork that is required.”
So the publication of long-awaited amendments to the visa regulations in late November was eagerly anticipated by tourism stakeholders in South Africa, as well as inbound operators abroad.
On the face of it, there’s good news, with minors from visa-exempt countries no longer required to produce a UBC before departure.
But despite many celebratory headlines in local media, the new regulations are not the sure-fire solution the industry was hoping for.
Firstly, countries whose nationals require visas still need to produce the required UBC paperwork when applying. This includes citizens of both India and China, countries seen as key markets for future growth.
“Emerging markets are the future, and with our current visa capacity we just take too long to process visas,” said David Frost, chief executive officer of the South African Tourism Services Association (SATSA). “So in terms of growth potential we’re not in a great space at the moment, and our short-term growth has to come from existing markets.”
More problematic is a lack of clarity in the new regulations regarding minors from visa-exempt nations, which includes key markets such as the United States and Europe.
The updated advisory from the Department of Home Affairs reads: “Children who are foreign nationals and who are visa exempt are strongly advised to carry these documents since they may be requested to produce them when traveling through a port of entry of the Republic.”
“Strongly advised? What does that mean? All they have done is to further complicate the issue,” said a frustrated Otto de Vries, chief executive officer of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA). “When you tweak legislation you’re adding layer upon layer of information, and you’re confusing people because you’re changing the way people should interpret those regulations.”
“There is still a fair amount of uncertainty,” agreed Chris Zweigenthal, chief executive of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa. “There’s no doubt it’s an improvement, but the biggest problem is that there is still discretion on arrival at South African immigration.”
Speaking to other stakeholders in the industry, who requested anonymity, the consensus seems to be that the regulations should be scrapped and the process started afresh.
“The only way we can ensure that we deliver meaningful legislation around the requirements for children traveling through South African ports of entry is to start from the ground up,” said ASATA’s De Vries. “Start again with meaningful consultation with all stakeholders impacted by this, and backed by real statistics around what Home Affairs is trying to achieve with this legislation.”
The loss of visitors spending dollars, pounds and euros is one that South Africa’s economy can ill afford. According to figures from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) the country’s tourism industry is responsible for nearly nine percent of gross domestic product, a figure in the region of $30 billon.
“If government really believes tourism has the opportunity to drive economic growth and job creation, they should be taking extraordinary steps to make tourism as accessible as possible. And that’s not happening,” said De Vries. “There are a number of immigration proposals on the cards that are supposed to make South Africa more appealing as a tourist destination. What we don’t know is when and how. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.”
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Photo credit: A South African passport and birth certificate are shown. The country has amended some visa regulations, but problems remain. Richard Holmes / Skift