Vague visa rules still a good sign, says SA Tourism’s Sisa Ntshona
Proof that government attitudes are changing, says SA Tourism boss
● The announcement this week by home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba, supposedly easing visa restrictions, was blasted as confusing and well short of requirements by the tourism industry. But SA Tourism boss Sisa Ntshona says it’s a step in the right direction.
“It’s the first immigration reform for a very long time and starts the process to where we can be much smoother, more predictable and more efficient in processing people in and out of the country,” he says.
When the former investment banker became CEO of the state tourism body two years ago, draconian visa regulations introduced by Gigaba in 2015 had become a nightmare for the industry.
Gigaba insisted they were necessary to counter child trafficking, and Ntshona gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“I sincerely want to believe that no-one wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to deliberately hold this sector back’,” he said at the time.
It’s his job to “take an optimistic line”, he says.
And so he sees Gigaba’s announcement as “an opportunity for home affairs to reiterate very clearly and succinctly what he means”.
Does he know what Gigaba means?
“We interpret him to mean unabridged birth certificates are no longer compulsory for international visitors with minors.”
Except that Gigaba didn’t actually say this. What he said was that immigration officials would only insist on full documentation for foreign minors “by exception, in highrisk situations”.
The Tourism Business Council of SA said this meant that documentation would still be required and that “nothing has changed”.
The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association said Gigaba’s “obfuscated message” had reintroduced the confusion created when his regulations were introduced in 2015.
“The real test will be how this pans out in the next couple of months,” says Ntshona. “If it doesn’t then we’ll have a case to say we need more clarity, use more deliberate, succinct, instructive words.”
He says scepticism about Gigaba’s announcement illustrates a “trust deficit” between the industry and the minister, which could be bad for tourism if it is not healed.
He says it’s not for him to say if there should be a more pro-tourism minister than Gigaba at home affairs.
“He’s appointed by the president and serves at his pleasure.”
He’s confident that President Cyril Ramaphosa “understands the importance of tourism”, and that in Derek Hanekom the industry has a minister who is “on top of his game”.
“That gives me great comfort in this space that the environment is being created for tourism to get where it needs to be.”
Ntshona adds that the direct contribution to GDP by the tourism sector is 3%, which he believes could be as high as 20%.
“Sectors like mining and manufacturing are struggling. Tourism should be leading the charge in terms of contribution to GDP.
“Tourism’s a no-brainer. No other sector can contribute as much across so many sectors.”
He says the country still doesn’t have “an appreciation for the impact of tourism”. But Gigaba’s announcement shows that the government’s attitude to tourism is changing.
“Two years ago home affairs thought they had no role to play in tourism. They thought their primary role was to keep people out of the country. They’re now talking tourism.”
The ministry of police “now understands that keeping citizens safe adds to the attractiveness of a country. They’re also beginning to understand that they play a role in tourism.”
Now they need to understand that their role is not just to protect tourists but also to make the whole country safer, and that if they don’t it has a huge impact not just on tourism but on investment.
“Who’s going to invest in a country where there is lawlessness?”
While the rest of the world grapples with terrorism, “we have crime. And we have to get that right if we want a thriving tourist industry,” Ntshona says.
Industry players meet twice a month with the police and share statistics and “incidents” — such as the spate of “follow-me-home” incidents from OR Tambo International Airport, which became impossible to ignore when a busful of Dutch tourists was hijacked last year.
“That did us a huge amount of damage.” Industry players got together with the police and said “we need a plan around the airports. That’s when we saw a bigger police presence and those numbers have come down.”
Two years ago, Ntshona told Business Times, there was a depressing failure by the government to understand the economic importance of tourism.
Its attitude to tourism was one of “indifference at best, in spite of tourism’s being prioritised in the National Development Plan”. There was little if any interdepartmental co-ordination around tourism, with Gigaba’s visa regulations being a stark illustration of this.
Now, he says, he is “confident that at cabinet level the conversations are starting to be coordinated”.
He says it’s difficult to quantify the cost to the country of the visa debacle “because you can’t measure opportunity cost”.
Likewise, it is difficult to quantify the impact of advisory notices issued by countries such as the US.
But the fact is that last year South African tourism grew by 3% versus a global average of 7%.
“And if we’re performing at less than half the world average in spite of our unique offering it means we are doing something wrong.”
While eager to credit Gigaba for his move to ease visa regulations, he suggests the minister is way behind the curve.
“What would have been mind-blowing is a move towards e-visas, which are much more secure, consistent and efficient.
“Completing a form online, getting a response in 48 hours, rocking up at a port of entry and giving the biometrics — that’s where we need to get to. It’s happening around the world, and we need to catch up.”
SA is a long way behind its competitors, he says.
“We lost our way a bit. When we’re behind countries we used to be far ahead of, such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and India, which are using e-visas, you know just how far behind we are. We really are behind.”
Two years ago, home affairs thought their role was to keep people out of SA … they’re now talking tourism