Derek Hanekom. Picture: GCIS
Derek Hanekom. Picture: GCIS

Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom is making headway in the easing of visa regulations — including those on travelling with children — which were blamed for damaging a sector accounting for almost a tenth of the economy.

The sector employs 1.6-million people and is seen as crucial in tackling chronic unemployment, which is at a rate of more than 50% for young people.

Previous measures to lift visa requirements for Russian and Brazilian tourists have resulted in a dramatic rise in travellers from those countries, while new requirements on Indian and Chinese visitors had the opposite effect.

Tough visa requirements imposed by Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba during his first stint in the job — including the requirement of unabridged birth certificates for children under the age of 18 — were strongly criticised by the travel industry.

Now Gigaba is working with Hanekom to ease the situation.

Discussions with home affairs "have been most encouraging", Hanekom said. The Department of Home Affairs aims to introduce e-visas this financial year and is devising systems to recognise international visas such as those for Schengen countries and the US as sufficient for tourist entry.

The 26 countries that are members of the Schengen agreement are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Hanekom told Business Day after his budget speech on Thursday that the measures would ease travel to SA, boosting numbers, especially from India and China.

"We have also agreed to bring the requirements for travelling minors in line with the practice in the US, UK and many other countries. This will go a long way to boost family travel and to end the traumatic experience of travellers being turned away by airlines."

In his budget speech on Wednesday, Gigaba said the introduction of an e-visa functionality would allow visitors to SA to apply for visas online and receive an electronic visa within hours or days.

Hanekom said e-visas that had been applied for online would be issued on arrival at South African airports.

"One of the most effective ways to increase tourist arrivals is to make it easier for people to travel to our country.

"A simple analysis of the arrival figures for 2017 shows that while visitor numbers from visa-exempt countries grew impressively, the opposite is true for visa-requiring countries," he said.

"In 2017, after the decision that visas would no longer be required for Russian tourists, Russian visitors increased by 52%. In sharp contrast though after we imposed the visa requirement on New Zealand the numbers dropped by 24%.

"Visitors from North America grew by over 7% last year, Germany went up by 12% and France by 27%. Brazil grew by no less than 75%.

"Disturbingly though India, which is one of our top 10 source markets, hardly grew at all and China declined by 17%."

Hanekom said that the restoration of a direct flight from Mumbai to SA, which was terminated by South African Airways, would assist "enormously" in the Indian market.

Another aspect of ease of access was direct airlinks, which made it easier and cheaper to get to the desired destination in SA.

Hanekom welcomed the recent announcement of a direct British Airways flight from London to Durban and the reintroduction of a direct flight from Rome to Johannesburg as "good news for tourism".