Camps Bay, Cape Town. Picture: ISTOCK
Camps Bay, Cape Town. Picture: ISTOCK

For as long as there has been swift enough transport to make the journey worthwhile, well-heeled Britons have been escaping the bleak winters of the North to become seasonal expats in the Cape. Known as "swallows", they now number more than 30,000, according to tourism industry estimates, and are bolstered by thousands of Germans, Swiss and other Europeans.

Yet aside from Capetonians’ idle complaints about the foreigners clogging up their roads, it is rare to hear a conversation about the effects of the phenomenon. Debate about the economic impact, and whether some policy shifts might unlock further potential, has been nonexistent.

Like all visitors to SA, swallows are granted 90-day stays on arrival. Yet David Frost, the chief executive of the SA Tourism Services Organisation, says most would stay longer if permitted. While many do exploit a loophole by visiting a neighbouring country before re-entering SA for another 90 days, Frost argues that loosening the regulations could be beneficial. It is difficult to argue. Which country would not want tens of thousands of foreigners bringing in money to spend on goods, services and travel?

The majority of swallows own property in the Cape and have considerable funds. Many are retired. The prospect of them taking up jobs, presumably the main fear behind the imposition of the short-term visa, is slim. They are far more likely to create jobs.

Furthermore, because they spend several months in SA, they tend to travel widely. While short-term visitors frequent the biggest attractions — the Kruger National Park, the Garden Route and the Western Cape — swallows visit the far-flung corners of the country and thereby make a vital contribution to the tourism trade. Granting them longer visas could give the economy a handy boost — just the Vat on their extra expenditure could be considerable — though thorough research is needed not only to confirm this, but also to firm up some statistics.

While the figure of 30,000 Brits is generally accepted in the tourism industry, nobody knows how many swallows there are in total and there has been no attempt to measure how they affect the economy, largely because there is no official acknowledgement of their being any different from a standard tourist. Only once this is put in place can the potential benefits of granting them longer stays be evaluated.

"We need a proper study to decide what we want to achieve," says a tourism industry official who does not want to be named. "We need to stop operating in silos in government and rather work together. If, for example, we want to pay our university fees, one bit of legislation might be able to do that."

One argument might be to grant longer visas to foreigners with property in SA — a subgroup that is already swelling.

According to a report in the Financial Times, sales to foreigners in the Cape Peninsular rose 28% over the November and December 2015 holiday season compared with the year before. With the rand on the slide, this trend looks set to continue as the value of SA’s housing market poses an ever greater appeal to the overseas market.

Such foreign investment is generally welcomed with open arms, but there is also a drawback.

According to a report in the Daily Maverick, Cape Town has the third-highest house price inflation, behind Vancouver and Shanghai. This puts property beyond the reach of even the white middle class at a time when civil society organisations are calling for affordable housing to be made available to poorer families closer to the city centre.

Encouraging more foreigners to buy Cape property that they will inhabit only for a limited period each year might not have a positive social effect.

Some holistic context is necessary, then, to determine the best way forward.

But it seems prudent to look at ways of harnessing the swallows’ enthusiasm for SA’s shores, rather than ignoring the migration altogether.

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