Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba came out swinging at critics of South Africa’s visa regulations who blame the immigration rules for declining rates of tourism to South Africa.
On Sunday, he criticised the local tourism sector for not doing enough to sell South Africa as a destination for visitors, adding that other factors, including a constrained global economy, had also contributed to the decline of tourism numbers.
Gigaba stopped short of outright criticism of the South African Reserve Bank – the latest organisation to raise concerns about the effects the regulations were having on tourism figures.
Gigaba said: “That the number of travellers dropped because of the new visa regulations is always an opinion. And the Reserve Bank is entitled to its opinion and also entitled to be wrong.”
He was answering questions on Sunday during a media briefing by the state’s governance and administration cluster.
The new visa regulations, among a number of changes made to immigration regulation, require children traveling to and from South Africa to carry an unabridged birth certificate. They also require foreign travellers seeking to obtain visas to South Africa to apply in person and provide biometric data.
Opposition to the new visa regulations had been based on “lies and cooked-up figures and surveys that have had no credibility whatsoever”, Gigaba said.
But in its latest quarterly bulletin – a publication that the bank releases four times a year and that provides critical and highly trusted data on the country’s economy – the Reserve Bank said large reductions in dividend and travel receipts, probably related to stricter South African visa regulations, had implications for South Africa’s balance of payments.
The trade balance, which forms part of the current account and measures a country’s imports and exports with the rest of the world, had seen a much-needed improvement in the second quarter of 2015 according to the bank.
But it noted that large reductions, including on the services account, driven by declines in travel receipts, had offset these improvements.
Spending by tourists in South Africa accounts for almost 95% of the “travel receipts” item, the largest revenue component in the services account of South Africa’s balance of payments according to the Bank.
“The rate of increase in travel receipts in the first half of 2015 slowed notably when compared with the corresponding period in 2014 amid a decline in the number of tourists visiting South Africa,” the bank said in the bulletin.
“The decline in tourist numbers could, inter alia, be ascribed to new legislation requiring that visitors travelling with a minor should be in possession of an unabridged birth certificate from June 1 2015.”
The bank said that the number of children younger than 18 years constitutes a sizeable portion of tourists in South Africa.
“Relative to the total number of tourists, the number of children dropped from 7.3% in 2014 to 6.4% in the first five months of 2015, the Bank said.
“A further analysis indicates that although the ratio deteriorated for both the overseas and African regions, overseas tourists continued to display a higher concentration of children. This could suggest that overseas tourists are more inclined to travel together as families and, as such, could be more affected by the aforementioned administrative arrangements.”
According to the Bank, preliminary estimations suggested that travel receipts declined by 9% in the second quarter of 2015.
“Given the growing importance and contribution of the tourism sector to overall domestic economic activity, a deterioration in the level of travel receipts could contribute to a further widening of the deficit on the services, income and current transfer account,” it added.
But Gigaba said that the department was not averse to the issues and concerns that have been raised.
Constructive proposals to mitigate the potential unintended consequences of the new regulations had been made in the inter-ministerial committee on migration, chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The process was “at an advanced stage” Gigaba said, but he would not be drawn on what proposals had been put forward, deferring to the presidency to make an announcement on the issue.
The figures from the Reserve Bank followed an outcry from tourism industry bodies regarding the effect of the new regulations on the sector.
A study done on behalf of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, by advisory firm Grant Thornton, estimated that in 2015 the regulations would result in a total net loss to South Africa’s gross domestic product of around R4.1-billion.
More recently, local airlines have noted the impact of the regulations on their businesses. Comair said in its recent results that it had seen a marked decrease of passenger numbers on its regional routes to Mauritius, Windhoek and Victoria Falls, which it attributed to the visa rules. The airline owns kulula.com and is the operator for British Airways locally.
The changes to the immigration regulations, some of which came into effect last year, also extended to the provision of work permits for foreign workers.
Business Day reported recently that Indian industrial giant Tata was considering basing some of its key personnel in Tanzania rather than South Africa, due to the difficulty in obtaining work permits for its management staff.
Gigaba said that the department had never claimed that the regulations would not affect visitor numbers.
“We said we expect that within the first year of the introduction of these new visa regulations, the figures may drop when people begin to comply and learn to understand what our regulations are about,” he said.
He said that as travellers become informed about the requirements the figures were expected to pick up again.
In addition, he criticised the tourism sector for not doing enough to sell South Africa on the basis of what it had to offer visitors, rather than as a destination with lax travel regulations.
“I think our tourism sector has not been selling South Africa as well as they should [have],” he said.
“They should be selling the country on the basis of what it offers travellers not on the basis that its easy for somebody to enter South Africa with a child, unnoticed.”
He said other factors such as fears over the spread of Ebola from West Africa to other parts of the continent have contributed to declines in traveller numbers, noting that China had issued a communiqué to its citizens, warning against travelling to any African country during the outbreak.
Other concerns such as the security threats from militants in both Eastern Africa as well as Nigeria, had also impacted on the foreign travellers views of the continent as a whole he added.
The global economy also remained very constrained he said.
All of these other issues had been neglected and the emphasis placed on the “body of visa regulations”, which had received all the blame for the challenges facing the tourism sector Gigaba said.