SA tourism lost R7,5 billion due to ill-conceived legislation and regulations - DA

By Louzel Lombard Steyn

Cape Town - The tourism industry has suffered a loss of at least R7,5 billion as a result of new immigration regulations, and immediate action is required if the Department of Tourism in SA wants to avoid further revenue loss and damage to SA's tourism industry in the coming festive season.

This is according to James Vos on behalf the Democratic Alliance, in a statement outlining the issues with SA's problematic birth certificate requirements, as well as new biometric data capturing systems.

Although the DHA announced changes to the birth certificate descriptions earlier in November, the requirements remain similar to the previous problematic unabridged birth certificate requirements, which has now been done away with in name only.

SEE: DHA streamlines birth certificates to ease minor travel

"For the last two years," Vos says, "Derek Hanekom has remained hopeful that the visa regulations would change in favour of tourism - this all while arrival figures plummeted and revenue was lost. In real terms, the tourism industry has suffered a loss of R7,5 billion as a result of these disastrous regulations."

The DA says they submitted countless motions and submissions in Parliament appealing for the regulations to be changed by scrapping the unabridged birth certificate requirement and implementing e-visas, which will streamline tourism facilitation, reduce turnaround time and make visa applications safer and more reliable.

The country's Department of Home Affairs, on the other hand, insist that the implementation of biometric data capturing will ease immigration operations in future, as it will pave the way for e-visas, self-check-in counters and other advanced immigration operations.

They say that current issues are mere growing pains to achieving more secure and technologically operated systems.

But while the kinks are smoothed out, SA's tourism and economic growth suffer.

Earlier this week, the TBCSA said they feared that "with the traditional festive season fast approaching and the anticipated increase in tourist numbers, there hasn't been any confirmation on contingency measures being put in place to address this urgent challenge facing the industry".

The TBCSA also said that SA Department of Home Affairs has lost many an opportunity for tourism growth in the country due to new immigration regulations, namely the unabridged birth certificates and the implementation of biometric data capturing. "The well-meaning concession that led to the introduction of biometric data capturing on arrival at our airports, is now being compromised by the lack of resources within the Home Affairs Department," they say.

Vos reiterates the TBCSA's sentiment saying SA lost approximately 15.5 billion Rand in 2015 as a direct impact of these "ill-conceived legislation and regulations.

"The World Tourism Organization's (UNWTO) implies a drop of $1 215 million" in SA from 2014 to 2015, Vos says. At 12.76 ZAR/USD average over 2015, that adds up to 15.5 billion Rand lost in 2015.

He says he fears the same will happen in 2016 if immediate action is not taken.

"Without any further delay, more should be done to prepare our immigration offices for the influx of tourists expected during the festive season by implementing measures to ensure that additional points are operational," Vos says.

On Friday, 4 November, the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBSCA), along with various other tourism stakeholders as well as the Ministers of Tourism and Finance in SA, held an emergency meeting to help avoid a crisis.

At the meeting, three short-term solutions were agreed upon to be proposed for approval before the festive season hits.

They are:

1. To introduce ushers at the airport to assist with welcoming and information.
"Many people stand in the wrong queues and don't even know it until they reach the front," Ramawela says. The ushers can help eliminate such issues and unnecessary frustration by helping people to the right counters off the cuff.

2. To make the waiting periods in the queues more pleasurable for travellers by providing water, music, entertainment and information.
Ramawela says waiting periods can be used to give travellers information about the various destinations in SA, from helpful, local guides. "With the approval of Asca, snacks, food, curious must also be made available to people in the queues."

3. Use staff from other official home affairs counters to assist in peak periods.
According to Ramawela, this was done during the Soccer World Cup in 2010 with great success.
"Staff from the immigration counters or departure zones can be moved to assist with immigrations at the more congested arrival zones," she says. "If this solution is to be implemented, it will be done with the approval and help of the South African Police Service (SAPS) at the airport, to ensure security is never compromised."

SEE: Biometric Delays: 3 quick-fixes to ease festive season spike at SA airports

Although Vos states that the delays at the airports' immigration counters are "caused by a lack of properly trained immigration officers", the DHA explained that it is rather new, stricter hiring regulations within the department that are part of the reason for the delays.

Due to the current austerity measures in the national budget, all vacancies in government positions need to be re-motivated before they can be filled again - making it impossible to fill a vacancy immediately after it opens.

The DHA said in an earlier statement they are short-staffed at the counters and that even at full capacity, "40% of immigration counters cannot be operational at peak periods".

According to Vos, it's not only the shortage of staff causing the issue. He says there are only 35 biometric systems at OR Tambo out of a total of 85 processing points within the terminal - which means only 41% of the counters are operational.