Cape Town - The battered rand is proving to be a boon for the tourism industry as it offsets some of the damage done by burdensome new visa laws.
Despite warnings from industry groups that the restrictions would keep holidaymakers away, data collected at border posts and airports show a 7% jump in foreign visitors in the peak year-end holiday period compared with a year ago. That’s a sharp turnaround since mid-2015, when visitor numbers had slumped.
The rand’s 31% nosedive against the dollar since the start of last year has made it a whole lot cheaper for foreign tourists to view giraffes and elephants in South Africa’s national parks and get to its sandy white beaches.
The cost of a pint of beer in a pub starts from R25 ($1.50), about a quarter of the price in London.
“South Africa is very good value,” John Porter, a photographer from the UK, said during a visit with his wife to Cape Town’s Waterfront complex. “We are getting more for our money than when we came here last year. We’ll come back.”
The new visa regulations introduced in May 2014 require travellers from countries including China, Russia and India to apply for visas in person, while visitors accompanied by children need to be in possession of their detailed birth certificates - measures the government said were necessary to bolster state security and combat child trafficking. The government is in the process of easing some of the restrictions following concerns raised by tourist operators.
The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), last year warned that the stricter laws would cost the economy about R7.5bn a year in lost revenue. The industry employs about 1.5 million people and accounts for 9% of gross domestic product.
Data collected by the Home Affairs Ministry show the opposite. About 2 million foreigners visited South Africa between December 1 and January 7, up from 1.87 million a year earlier.
The number of visitors from Europe rose 6.1%, from North America 7.8% and from Asia 15%.
SATSA says the data from the Homes Affairs Ministry has not been verified. The real impact of the visa rules can only be assessed once Statistics SA publishes official tourism data in a few months' time, according to David Frost, chief executive officer of the industry group.
“Even if the 7% number is correct, considering the exchange rate we should be getting 27% more tourists,” Frost said in an emailed response to questions.