Visa hot potato provokes emotional responses

Cape Town - The impact of South Africa's new visa regulations continues to be a hot topic in the local tourism industry and has provoked a variety of opinions.

According to Statistics SA, a 6% drop in foreign tourist arrivals was recorded for the first three months of 2015 - a loss of 150 000 tourists - compared to the same period last year.

"The topic of visas is an emotional issue," Dr Andre Schulz, general manager of Lufthansa in southern Africa, told Fin24.

He said Lufthansa has so far not had any incidents because of SA's new visa regulations and no Lufthansa passengers have been sent back due to not having the right documentation.

"We obtained the standard procedures from SA's Department of Home Affairs and made sure our staff received training on the issue. We also educated our customers well on the topic," said Schulz.

"Accordingly, we have seen no negative impact on our bookings. It is currently the holiday season and flights are full. And even if we would see a drop, if would be difficult to ascribe it simply to the new visa regulations."

READ: Lufthansa making SA flight changes

On the other hand, Tim Harris, CEO of Wesgro, the destination marketing, investment and trade promotion agency for the Western Cape, said a study showed there has been a R1.4bn drop in tourism spending in SA so far this year and that the impact could be R10bn per year in the future.

He said tourism numbers from China and India have declined by 59% and 15% respectively after SA started demanding that prospective visitors go in person to visa centres to have their biometrics taken.

"This is limiting growth from potentially one of our biggest tourism markets. Why can biometrics not be taken at the point of entry to SA?" asked Harris.

He said 806 potential visitors have apparently been turned away so far because they did not have unabridged birth certificates.

"Child trafficking is a problem, but we are using the wrong instruments to tackle it," said Harris.

READ: SA tourism harmed by visa rules - Hanekom

In answer to a question from Fin24 whether the Ebola scare could have had an effect on tourism numbers from China and India, Harris said the xenophobic attacks in SA and the Ebola crisis in West Africa had hurt visitor numbers without a doubt, but such a great impact on the numbers points to the visa issue.

He explained that China, for instance, has only four centres for 1.3 billion people where SA visas can be obtained, while India has 11 such centres for 1 billion people.

"The system is not designed to support growth in the tourism industry, growth we need in the Western Cape and SA," said Harris.  

Western Cape Minister of Economic Opportunities Alan Winde said at a recent tourism forum that the tourism industry in general is under pressure. At the same time, there has been an increase in domestic tourists flying from Cape Town to the rest of the country.

The picture for foreign visitors is somewhat different.

"Tourists are still coming from our traditional markets and our visitor numbers from the US are lifting, but imagine if we still saw the 30% growth in tourism numbers from China and India," said Winde.

"Tourism is our front office. This is how we show ourselves to the world. The five new hotels being built in Cape Town show businesses are able to have confidence in us at the moment. We have a good basis to work from."

ALSO READ: SA gives Brics port of entry visas

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