File photo: Venter suggests that the rigorous controls at South Africa's international airports indicate no evidence of child-trafficking into or of the country by air. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Johannesburg - Act now to clarify entry requirements and to address delays at Immigration at OR Tambo International Airport (ORTIA) or risk seriously harming the country's burgeoning tourism trade and the economy, says Erik Venter, CEO of Comair.

Recent weeks have seen thousands of visitors waiting for up to four hours to be processed, which has meant that hundreds have missed their connecting flights, despite landing at ORTIA in good time to board them. Venter says this is especially concerning as South Africa's tourism sector enters its busiest time of the year.

Venter says: “The delays at ORTIA Immigration are due to the introduction of biometric identification at Immigration, as well as staffing changes which have led to too few officials from the Department of Home Affairs manning the counters.

“We're participating in the task team that's working to address the situation and in ongoing contact with all stakeholders, but the airline industry and the travel and hospitality sector need the Department of Home Affairs to treat this as urgent to make significant progress on the matter in the next few weeks.

“Tourism to South Africa is set to grow by nearly 15 percent year-on-year in 2016, according to the Statistics South Africa, but making it difficult for visitors to travel to this country will reduce or potentially even cancel out those gains.”

South Africa is a popular destination, especially for visitors from the Northern Hemisphere - now entering winter - as well as the Far East and the rest of the African continent. This country has many attractions, underpinned by the favourable Rand exchange-rate, but these travellers are by no means short of choice, he adds.

Venter says it's also worrying that there's also widespread confusion among travellers and the travel industry over documentation requirements for visitors, to the detriment of the tourism sector, which has the potential to be a powerful driver of socioeconomic development in South Africa.

“A vibrant tourism sector has multiple benefits for our country: it supports economic growth in an environment where traditionally strong sectors like mining and manufacturing have faltered. Secondly, tourism is labour-intensive, so it creates jobs and enables skills transfer and transformation.

“Thirdly, tourism brings our country much-needed foreign exchange, helping to drive our balance of payments as effectively as a strong export sector would. That's why, for example, confusion over the required documentation for immigration needs to be clarified.”

Venter explains that, following the initial difficulties with unabridged birth certificates, it was announced that the requirements would be changed. This has led some stakeholders to assume that unabridged birth certificates are no longer required, but, he says, “To our knowledge those requirements remain in place.

“Obviously any state needs border controls, but visitors to and within South Africa deserve the best possible customer experience our country can offer. Comair is assisting customers who miss their connections by rebooking them on later flights or providing accommodation where necessary. But the sector simply cannot allow visitors to be inconvenienced by being denied boarding their flights, or needing to be re-accommodated, or being denied entry despite being assured that they had the right documentation.”

Venter suggests that the rigorous controls at South Africa's international airports indicate no evidence of child-trafficking into or of the country by air. “Child-trafficking is a scourge that must be quashed, but doing so requires focusing on our porous land borders, rather than airports.”

For the record, says Venter, the Department of Home Affairs has not changed its requirements for entry, despite having undertaken to review them. “As from 1 October 2014, all persons under the age of 18 years of age, arriving, transiting and/or departing from SA are required to produce an unabridged birth certificate indicating the biological parents of the minor. In the case where only one parent is travelling with the child/ren, a consent from the other parent in the form of an affidavit, is required.

“Alternatively, a court order granting full parental rights and responsibilities to the person travelling with the minor or a death certificate of the other biological parent must be produced. Airlines will be forced to refuse travel to families not in possession of these documents. These new regulations have been implemented to combat child trafficking.”

Adapted from a press release for IOL