Govt’s decision to grant concessions to its new visa regime, after it was blamed for a slump in tourism, has been cautiously welcomed by trade groups.
After months of lobbying by a desperate local tourism sector – which has blamed the visa regulations for a decline in traveller numbers to South Africa – the Cabinet announced an easing in some of the visa requirements.
The visa regulations, aimed at reducing child trafficking, came in for a public slating especially from tourism groups and people travelling with children to and from South Africa.
Under the new visa regulations, which came into effect in June, parents cannot travel in and out of the country with their minors if they do not have an unabridged birth certificate as well as a passport.
In addition to the documents, both parents have to provide consent for children to travel. Consent is required from a single parent only if the other parent did not acknowledge paternity; if both parents’ names are on the unabridged birth certificate, the child cannot travel without both their consent. Foreigner travellers seeking to obtain visas to South Africa also had to apply in person at missions abroad to provide biometric data.
An inter-ministerial committee was set up to investigate what government termed the “unintended consequences” of the regulations. That concessions are now being made is a who previously claimed opposition to the regulations.
‘Step in right direction’
Although the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) said the concessions were a “step in in the right direction” it would take time to study them before it made further pronouncements on the matter.
“We do not want to rush into making any statements on the specifics without first reviewing how far the concessions go to address these two concerns or getting clarity on the nuances that may be open to interpretation,” said TBCSA chief executive Mmatšatši Ramawela in statement.
Where there are gaps, said Ramawela, the organisation hoped to address them through a tourism stakeholder forum, which it recommended be established without delay.
The envisaged forum, would be led by the director-generals from the departments of tourism and home affairs, and play a critical role in “facilitating discussions and collaboration with the home affairs department, and the implementation of key actions within the next three months to 12 months”, he said.
Cabinet last week announced a phased series of concessions. The first will take effect within the next three months, the second within three months to a year and the third after a year.
The first phase of concessions includes changes to biometric visa requirements.
Among other concessions the department of home affairs will begin accepting visa applications by post, in countries where no South African missions exist. The department will also allow for the collection of biometric data at points of entry to South Africa. Pilot sites will be launched at OR Tambo Airport, King Shaka Airport and Cape Town International Airport.
The department will also investigate the introduction of an Accredited Tourism Company (ATC) programme for China, India and Russia with possible extension to other visa requiring countries. This is intended to cater for the problem of applying for visas in person in countries with a large geographic spread and a very small number of missions present.
In relation to children travelling into and from South Africa, inbound travellers with children must provide original birth certificates or certified copies of required documents during the visa application process, according to the Cabinet statement, rather being required to travel with unabridged birth certificates.
Travellers entering from visa exempt countries will be “strongly advised” to bring along proof of relation to the child and consent from the absent parents or guardians.
SA tourism hit
The new visa regulations have hit tourism trade. Most recently the treasury in its recent medium term budget highlighted concern over the declines seen in the sector.
“The sharp decline in tourism, which became pronounced in the second quarter of 2015, is of great concern,” it said. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, in 2014 travel and tourism contributed 9.4% to the country’s total GDP, or around R357-billion.
In a statement, the council’s chief executive and president David Scowsill congratulated the government for making the changes.
But he added that to benefit from the economic and social benefits of tourism, the council “encourages governments to provide visitors with a safe and smooth passage, which means adopting smarter visa processes, more visa waiver agreements and trusted traveller programmes”.
It was also important that it ensured the changes were “implemented in a timely and appropriate manner and that the government continues to look for ways to improve its visa processes,” he said.