Brakes still wanted on visa rules

Confusion remains over whether the Cabinet will re-examine the controversial visa regulations that tourism industry players say are damaging local tourism.

Earlier this week in Cape Town, ahead of the World Economic Forum, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said the government may re-examine at the regulations, given the public outcry, according to Business Report.

His comments come after Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom told reporters before his May budget vote speech that the regulations were negatively affecting the sector.

Radebe did not respond to follow-up questions from the Mail & Guardian about when such a review may happen.

Tourism industry bodies said Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba promised last year that a task team would examine the impact of the regulations. But the team has still not been constituted. The tourism bodies also said they are still seeking a “level-headed engagement with government” to address the matter.

Damage to the sector
They warned that the damage to the sector has already begun. In addition, international airline bodies said this week that the new regulations will harm plans for regional integration in the African airline space.

In the face of mounting pressure, the department of home affairs has remained committed to the regulations, which it said are aimed at securing South Africa’s borders and curbing child trafficking.

David Frost, chief executive of the Southern African Tourism Services Association, said the regulations are “damaging the economy and destroying jobs”.

He said air ticketing data into South Africa obtained from the International Air Transport Association already indicates a 20% decline in visitor numbers for June.

“It’s going to get worse,” said Frost.

Ticketing data
The ticketing data appears to support a previous study commissioned by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa. Conducted by advisory firm Grant Thornton, the report estimated that in 2014, the total “direct, indirect and induced impact” on the South African economy was a loss of R2.6-billion and more than 5 800 jobs.

The report estimated that the number of lost foreign tourists is likely to increase to 100 000 in 2015, with an accompanying loss to gross domestic product of about R4.1-billion and 9 300 jobs shed.

The changes to the visa rules that came as part of new immigration regulations include the requirement for children under 18 travelling to and from South Africa to carry an unabridged birth certificate. Foreign travellers seeking visas for South Africa also now have to apply in person to provide their biometric details.

The regulations about children kicked in on Monday, after being postponed in late 2014. The requirement for visitors to apply for biometric visas came into effect last year.

The travel industry maintains that the rules about children is unworkable given that birth certificates are not recognised international travel documents, and that enforcement would be impossible considering the range of formats and languages on birth certificates around the world.

Apparent uncertainty
In the run-up to Monday’s start date there was apparent uncertainty over the standard operating procedures that airlines should apply when checking in travelling minors.

At a recent joint press conference, the Association of South African Travel Agents and the Southern African Tourism Services Association said several versions of these procedures had been circulated among airlines, adding to the confusion.

But last Friday the department of home affairs attempted to clarify questions on unabridged birth certificates. It said children travelling from visa-exempt countries into South Africa must carry an unabridged birth certificate. So, too, must South African minors leaving the country.

Children travelling from countries requiring a visa, however, do not need to carry an unabridged birth certificate: it would have been provided as part of the visa application. And children from countries where the particulars of both parents are included on their passports, such as India, do not need to present an unabridged birth certificate.

Pressure mounted on the government this week, with the International Air Transport Association calling on the state to “review, modify and, if necessary, rescind the new measures”.

Single common market
The airline body said in their current form the regulations go against South African commitments, made earlier this year at a meeting of African Union transport ministers, to implement a single common market for African airlines.

It expressed worry over the “lack of information” flowing from the government “on the questions surrounding their readiness and ability to apply the new regulations, both with respect to accepting and processing visa applications under the new regulations and to the effective enforcement of the new measures”.

Last week it emerged that Air China has postponed direct flights to South Africa following the xenophobic violence and the new visa regime.

China, with other developing countries such as India, has been growing the inbound tourism market. But the new regulations, especially those concerning in-person visa applications, are eroding South Africa’s share of these markets, said Frost.

Only two missions in China – in Shanghai and Beijing – process these visa applications. Although the requirement for biometric visas came into force last year, the tourism associations claim that missions in China do not yet have the machinery needed for processing them.

‘Ability to deliver’
Otto de Vries, chief executive of the Association of South African Travel Agents, said there appear to be “massive gaps in [the department’s] ability to deliver that as a function”.

South Africa is not the only country that requires biometric details to be captured at a visa centre. But the industry has proposed that biometric details rather be captured on arrival at ports of entry. The reliability of child trafficking claims has also been called into question.

The department relies on figures stating that 30 000 minors are trafficked through South Africa every year; hence the need for the regulatory overhaul. But research by nonprofit group Africa Check suggests the data is “exaggerated and sensational”.

De Vries said the tourism sector still wants “level-headed” engagement with the government, failing which a legal challenge is possible.

‘It’s best practice’ – Home affairs

Home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said the new rules are “embedded in a process of law” and in line with best practice in the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Despite the tourism industry’s statement that the department failed to communicate properly with stakeholders, he maintained the department has held “continuous engagements with role players in the tourism, aviation, travel and hospitality industry”. The department, he said, changed the standard operating procedures to accommodate stakeholder “input”.

“This would include … the fact that the translation of unabridged birth certificates or equivalent documents by travellers would no longer be required,” he said.

To help the airline community ensure that their outside stations are ready to implement the new requirements for children travelling to South Africa, a summary document was provided on the requirements for minors to travel internationally, he said. He added that five versions were distributed, which included minor changes.

Responding to figures relating to child trafficking that inferred the department was using wrong information, Tshwete said: “One child trafficked is one child too many.”

He explained that the department is still rolling out its biometric visa capability abroad.

“The department is engaged with China and other priority countries for purposes of establishing facilitation centres for the capturing and processing of travel visa applications,” he said, adding that it has opened 11 centres in India and two in China, with another two expected there soon.

Capturing biometrics “at the point of application” is “integral to the extension of our borderline”; it also assists with the effective facilitation of travellers when arriving at South African ports of entry, Tshwete said.

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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