Brics talk visas to boost tourism

2013-04-07 10:00

The growth in tourism to SA from partner nations could prove a strong incentive to cut border-control red tape

There are “ongoing discussions” to scrap visas for ordinary passport holders from the five countries in the Brics bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), paving the way for a key diplomatic declaration of solidarity – and a boon for the tourist trade.

Despite the talk of integration and partnership, in simple terms of human traffic, South Africa remains far more open to the UK, the US and other Western nations than to most of its Brics partners, even though this is often a one-directional openness.

The old British Commonwealth, the US, much of Europe and South America are exempt from South African visas even though the Western countries, especially, require visas for South African visitors.

Making the borders between the Brics more porous, with easier business visas, was on Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “10-point Brics agenda” when he played host to last year’s Brics summit, but it fell off the official agenda this year.

Lunga Ngqengelele, the spokesperson for the minister of Home Affairs, says: “The requests for exemptions are handled on a bilateral level, country by country. Already, members of Brics countries who carry official and diplomatic passports are exempted from visa requirements.

“There are ongoing discussions regarding holders of ordinary passports to be exempted for those countries.”

For last month’s Brics Summit in Durban, Home Affairs granted all invited delegates who were not diplomats temporary visa waivers.

Among the Brics, Brazil is the only country South Africans can visit without a visa and vice versa. “If you have a passport, you can jump on a plane to Rio today,” says Daniel Anvari-Brown of Global Visas, a company that provides “immigration solutions”, including facilitating visas.

For the other Brics, the picture is less rosy and it is usually the South Africans who have the better end of it.

Anvari-Brown adds: “South Africa is a hard place to get into. There is more red tape. Our visa regime needs to be changed to facilitate the Brics partnership. It should be almost preferential with a single cost for all the countries. Otherwise, what is the point of the partnership?”

To get into India takes four days and requires a visa issued free of charge, but for Indians to come to South Africa they need to pay a fee of R425 and wait for anything between 15 and 19 days, says Anvari-Brown.

Visiting China also requires a visa, which takes a minimum of four days and costs between R250 and R500.

And Chinese visitors face more or less the same situation as Indians when they come to South Africa and it “isn’t easy”, says Anvari-Brown.

On paper, the Russian system is not so difficult, although for business travel you need an invitation and there is a fee of R640 to R1?000 for visa applications.

Despite all this, there has been a surge in intra-Brics travel since 2008. In the past five years, Chinese travel to South Africa has more than tripled, from 40?275 in 2008 to 132?327 last year – becoming the main source of new overseas visitors.

The picture is similar, if slightly less dramatic, for Brazil and India.

In 2008, South Africa received 59?186 Indian visitors, which last year grew to 106?774.

In the same year, there were 36?436 Brazilian tourists and, last year, there were 78?376.

But these figures still pale in comparison with the more than 400?000 British or almost 300?000 American visitors per year.

Germany, the Netherlands, France and Australia all send more than 100?000 visitors our way per year, but China and India may very well displace them as our major tourist-sourcing countries when the final statistics for last year are released later this month.

Visa regimes are usually reciprocal, with countries returning the favour if another allows its citizens free access.

But there is a huge disjuncture between rich and poor countries as the one side attempts to keep out illegal immigrants and the other tries to lure tourists and investors.

Anvari-Brown says: “It would be nice for South Africa to move first and relax entry requirements for the other Brics, but these things can often be long and drawn out.”

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