South African hotel groups such as Southern Sun said the removal of South Africa from Chinese tour operator brochures probably explained the 62% plunge in Chinese tourists between November 2013 and November 2014. File Photo: IOL

JOHANNESBURG – The release of the Tourism 2016 report by Statistics SA last week showed that the number of overseas tourists surged by almost a fifth in 2016. This was in part due to the due to the weak rand, which made a holiday in South Africa very cheap for an overseas tourist. 

Despite the rebound in 2016, South Africa was still suffering from the misguided imposition of more stringent visa requirements in October 2014, as the number of overseas tourists remained below their 2013 levels.

The release of the report also highlighted StatsSA’s resource constraints as its budget has been cut by R400 million this fiscal year. The Tourism report this year was released more than three months later than last year’s report, which was released on April 4.

New visa regulations from October 2014 that required an in-person visit for biometric data to South African consulates for visitors from non-visa exempt countries such as China, Russia and India had an impact, but there were other factors at play as only one (The Netherlands) of the top 10 overseas source countries showed an increase in 2014 compared with 2013 as the Ebola scare, the collapse in oil prices and generally weak global economic growth in 2014 also had an influence. 

The visa requirements were relaxed and the capacity to process them was improved in 2015 and 2016 in a belated attempt to mitigate the effects on the tourism industry. As 10 tourists are estimated to create one job, the near 130 000 drop in overseas tourist numbers since 2013 has cost some 13 000 jobs at a time when the unemployment rate exceeds 27 percent. 

The Department of Home Affairs administers the visa requirements. Several countries such as Brazil and most European countries are exempt from visas provided they stay less than 90 days. Visas are not issued at South African ports of entry, and airline officials are obliged to insist on visas before allowing passengers to board. If a visitor arrives without a visa, immigration officials are obliged to put the visitor onto a flight back to the country of origin.

South African hotel groups such as Southern Sun said the removal of South Africa from Chinese tour operator brochures due to the biometric requirements probably explained the 62 percent plunge in Chinese tourists between November 2013 and November 2014. 

As a result of this collapse, India overtook China as the leading BRIC source country in 2014 even though India is also not a visa-exempt country, as tourists from India travel far less in tour groups, but rather as families and friends. 

China regained its top spot among the BRICS countries in 2015 but may lose it again this year as Tourism SA is busy with a major campaign in India to ensure that Indian tourists to South Africa exceed 100 000 in 2017. 

Tourism South Africa has partnered with the Travel Agents Association of India so that more than 1 500 travel agents are being trained to promote South Africa in India. The focus of the training is to fill the lean winter months as European tourists tend to come in summer with June and July overseas tourist arrivals roughly half those of December or January. 

The other part of the training is to spread the benefits of tourism away from the Big Five – Cape Town, Durban, Gauteng, Sun City and the Kruger National Park. Instead, the attractions of the Garden Route, the West Coast and the Drakensberg are being promoted.