New visa rules worry SAA CEO, aviation leaders

Miami – The impact of recent changes to South African visa regulations will undeniably have a negative impact on the country’s tourism industry, Nico Bezuidenhout, acting CEO of South African Airways, told Fin24 in an exclusive interview at the annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

The regulations, which include the requirement of an unabridged birth certificate for minors travelling to the country, was a great concern for delegates who deal directly or indirectly with South Africa.

Bezuidenhout, however, regarded the reason for the new requirement – as a measure to prevent child trafficking – as a noble cause.

“I cannot criticise the reason for wanting an unabridged birth certificate, but in the global village we live in we compete, for instance, with Kenya for wild life safaris,” he said.

“It is, therefore, a complex issue and I wish it did not have a direct impact. I am not an expert on the issue, but from an airline standpoint I think it will have a negative impact.”

Chris Zweigenthal, CEO of the Airline Association of Southern Africa (AASA), told Fin24 the biggest issue impacting SA’s aviation environment is the slower economic growth. Accordingly, there is not the level of growth expected in the aviation industry.

Influencing decisions

He too expressed concern over the new immigration regulations in SA, which also include the need for biometric data. Zweigenthal sees a negative impact especially in travel from India and China where prospective visitors to SA have to travel far for a biometric application.

On the requirement for an unabridged birth certificate, Zweigenthal said AASA did put its case against it to the minister of home affairs, pointing out the potential negative impact it would have on the travel industry.

In his view the new regulation will not solve the problem of child trafficking.

Christian Klick, vice president at the corporate office of the Star Alliance, of which SAA is a member, told Fin24 that any complication in the travelling process has a direct impact on the decisions customers make regarding which airline they choose and which country they decide to visit.

“That is why we at Star Alliance always promotes having a close relationship with government agencies to ease the process,” said Klick.

He added that Star Alliance foresees a future growth in Africa’s aviation industry.

Another delegate Aage Dunhaupt, senior vice president communications of airberlin group, told Fin24 the question (on the new visa rules) is where to find the balance between protecting children and not being unfair to travellers in general.

He, however, pointed out that in the leisure market many visitors to SA are couples and he has also seen a positive growth trend in an increase in the gay and lesbian market segment in Cape Town.

Bezuidenhout said it has once again become clear that the international aviation community has a lot of respect for SAA. “Sometimes we can be very insular in our thinking in South Africa and be highly critical. Yet, the international community value SAA’s operational excellence,” he told Fin24.

“We as South Africans should also be proud of the good related to the airline and build on it, of course while we acknowledge the challenges too.”

SAA bailouts

On the repeated government bailouts of SAA, Bezuidenhout said that subsidies should only be a concern where it has a detrimental effect on the market. He said SAA is profitable with its routes on the African continent. It is, however, on its long haul international routes where the problem lies. Mango is also profitable.

“One should look at it from a bigger perspective. What will South African travellers do if a route is not profitable and it is stopped and there is no replacement?” he asked and gave examples of the route to Argentina and to Beijing, which SAA has stopped and there is yet no replacement.

“SAA’s international routes add R10bn to the economy each year and support about 33 000 jobs directly and indirectly in the broader tourism industry.”

To him the question is whether South Africans think they deserve an efficient and effective national carrier to cover demand and need.

He pointed out that both the South African and Brazilian economies are struggling. So, if it was purely a commercial decision, both countries’ airlines would stop the SA-Brazil route and yet there are other economic impacts to consider.

* Fin24 is an Iata guest at its AGM. 

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