/ 5 July 2014

Tourism sector seeks urgent extension to immigration rules

Tourism Sector Seeks Urgent Extension To Immigration Rules

Major players in the tourism sector are urgently lobbying government for a 12-month delay in new immigration regulations to prevent potentially devastating consequences for the country’s tourism sector.

New requirements for in-person biometric data collection for tourist visas and unabridged birth certificates for travelling minors have caused consternation across the sector.

Industry organisations from airline and travel agent representative bodies to large tour and leisure groups believe the new requirements will hamstring South Africa in the intensely competitive global tourism trade. Of particular concern is the impact they could have on emerging, high-growth tourism from countries such as China and India.

According to Cullinan Holdings chief executive Michael Tollman, the effects are already beginning to be felt. This has prompted the JSE-listed owner of major tourism and leisure brands to re-assess their investment plans in local operations. The company owns in- and outbound tour operators, including Thompsons Holidays and Thompsons Africa, retail travel agencies such as Pentravel, as well as coaching services such as Hylton Ross Executive Touring.

The department has granted an extension until October 1 to roll out the new requirements. Tollman, along with other industry participants who spoke to the Mail & Guardian, are hoping for a further extension of at least 12 months. This was to enable the industry to consult with the home affairs and tourism departments, to ensure government’s stated ambitions to increase security and prevent child trafficking were met, without harming local tourism.

The Tourism Business Council of South Africa, the umbrella body representing organised business in the local industry, has written to new Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, requesting a reprieve and the opportunity to make representations on the matter.

The Board of Airline Representatives South Africa warned in June that South Africa could lose an estimated 536 000 visitors, or roughly R6.8-billion. Airlines operated routes on razor-thin margins and the potential drop in passenger numbers could cause the suspension or complete loss of services to South Africa it said in a statement. 

The requirement for in-person biometric data collection when applying for a visa to South Africa was particularly worrying, said Tollman, especially in large countries such as China and India. China only had two centres in Beijing and Shanghai, where would-be tourists can report for in-person biometric data capture – namely fingerprinting and photographs.

A majority of Chinese tourists came from outside of Shanghai and Beijing, and will now need to travel large distances at additional cost to either centre to apply for their visas.

“It’s not feasible and certainly not competitive with other destinations,” said Tollman. “Other destinations are doing all they can to make visas easier because they recognise the value of the Chinese tourist market.”

He quoted a report from one of his executives in China received this week: “It seems like the Chinese operators are walking away from encouraging, promoting and selling South Africa,” the executive said in an email.

Biometric intake needed to be rolled out across 50 centres in countries such as China for the process to be feasible Tollman argued.

The impact would flow down to the company’s coaching businesses such as Hylton Ross and Springbok Atlas. It would have to reassess its three-year R250-million investment plan, of which R70-million had already been spent, into new and existing coaches said Tollman.

The size of group tours from India and China necessitated that inbound groups visited South Africa in the winter months – important business for the much quieter off-season. It would not be possible to replace this business over this time once it was lost he said. 

Travelling with children
Jennifer Seif, executive director of Fair Trade Tourism, said although the regulations were laudably aimed at preventing human trafficking, the industry needed more time to comply.

The regulations were not entirely unprecedented as countries such as Thailand had a similar regime, she noted.

But she expressed doubt over the ability to enforce the requirements – particularly when it came to land border posts as opposed to airports.

The problem of trafficking in the South Africa was also poorly understood, she noted.

“More than half of the trafficking in persons [in South Africa] is … internal trafficking. It’s not people coming across borders, its people being moved within the country and it’s driven by poverty and criminal syndicates,” she said.

The new measure was not going to address this problem holistically, she argued.

And the impact of biometric requirements were potentially far more problematic, said Seif, thanks to added complications and costs it burdened would-be visitors with.  

Potential shortfalls
The department’s ability to provide the very documents it will soon require South African travellers to present, has also been questioned.

Although home affairs had begun issuing standard unabridged birth certificates from last year, the reality was that most South Africans were not in possession of such a document, said Otto de Vries, chief executive of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents.

The department has stated that there was a turn around time of four to eight weeks to issue a new unabridged birth certificate, but practise suggested these timelines were closer to between four and six months, said De Vries.

There was an expectation of a “shortfall” on the part of home affairs to execute its role in the new regime, he said.

As a result, the extension of the deadline to October 1 would not be sufficient in the South African travel context, said de Vries.

The call to all South Africans to apply for the unabridged certificates was also likely to see a flood of applications, creating a backlog for home affairs, cautioned de Vries.

The department did not respond to requests for comment.

Open to discussions
But Gigaba reportedly told a business breakfast on Friday morning that the department was open to further discussions with stakeholders to address potential implications for the economy.

“Our doors are not closed. We are open to further engagement on the consequences. You can never introduce new regulations that are perfect and will work,” the South African Press Association reported him has saying.

Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom gave assurances last week that his department was attempting to ameliorate the “possible unintended consequences” of the new provisions.

Officials from his department were in urgent discussions with counterparts in home affairs to find appropriate solutions, he said.

The tourism department was not able to provide any further comments, however, as these discussions were still ongoing.