South Africa’s new visa rules: sound idea but badly executed

South Africa’s game reserves are loved by tourists. The new visa regulations could have a negative impact on them. Shutterstock

As a developing tourist destination, South Africa has focused on various strategies to make the country more accessible and boost visitor numbers. But various events have challenged these growth strategies.

Most recently, the tourism industry has been directly affected by two changes in immigration regulations.

It is now required that all children under the age of 18 visiting and leaving South Africa need to be in possession of an unabridged birth certificate in addition to their passport and visa. There are exceptions where the particulars of parents are endorsed in children’s passports and where minors already have valid South African visas.

This requirement was introduced to protect children from being trafficked. It came into force in June amid huge national protest.

Second, tourists travelling from countries that require a visa have to appear in person during the visa application process to obtain a biometric visa. These changes were made to reduce South Africa’s vulnerability to security threat and came into effect in May last year.

These visa requirements have had a negative impact on tourist numbers to South Africa.

The direct contribution, which reflects internal spending, of South African travel and tourism to GDP was R103.2bn (30% of total GDP) and the total [contribution]((http://www.wttc.org/-/media/files/reports/economic%20impact%20research/country%20reports/south_africa2014.pdf) was R323.0bn (9.5% of GDP) in 2013. This shows the importance of the industry to the country. Changes that could affect this contribution should be carefully considered.

But there are two sides to this coin. These are that the number of visitors to the country is dropping. On the other hand South Africa has taken a lead role globally against child trafficking.

South Africa as a tourist destination

According to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, the country’s tourism industry lost a direct spend of R886m due to the new regulations. The number of visitors from China and India, currently significant source markets for South Africa, dropped in 2015 compared to the same time in 2014.

Whether the decline in tourist numbers can be entirely attributed to the new regulations is not clear. Other events such as the xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg and the decline in the world economy also influenced travel plans. Safety and security are also an important consideration in travel decisions.

South Africa is well known as a family destination, but competitors are reaping the benefits from this situation as they attract more visitors. There are so many options to choose from. If there are other destinations offering the same kind of product with fewer hassles, tourists might opt for that. The tourist of today is informed, alert and does not want to experience unnecessary challenges even before travelling.

Taking the moral high ground

The main challenge of the unabridged birth certificate regulation is that travellers are not used to this practice since it is not a requirement in other countries, even though more countries are considering it. Obtaining a birth certificate, as currently required, takes time and in many cases is a difficult and a costly process.

But South Africa was brave enough to take a stand on child trafficking by enforcing these new regulations and actually set an example for other countries. To a certain extent, the outcry over the new visa requirements and the drop in tourism figures imply that South Africa is paying the price for being the first to adopt such measures.

Other countries have taken measures to impose tougher visa requirements. For example, when the UK announced that South Africans needed a visa to visit the country, South Africans also protested due to the cost and process involved.

There are only three places in South Africa where one can obtain a UK visa, which complicates the process. But if you want to visit the UK, you need to adapt and follow the process. The UK experienced a 5% drop in visitor numbers in August 2012 compared to the previous year due to the visa restrictions.

Implementation is the main problem

The main problem with South Africa’s new requirements lies with the implementation, not the idea. The South African government should take a step back and review the implementation of the regulations.

The motive behind the change in regulations is clear, but the implementation needs to be adapted and improved to minimise the negative effect on the industry, which is seen as one of the growing sectors of the economy.

Foreign embassies should be clear on the required documents, and the South African government needs to support embassies more effectively. Technology can assist in easing this process through online applications and setting ways to verify the information.

Much more consultation with industry is needed before the implementation of such a regulation to ease the effect and create optimal implementation. One should, however, not forget the other negative events. A mix of all these contributed to the drop in visitor numbers.