Cape Town. Picture: 123RF/kavram
Cape Town. Picture: 123RF/kavram

At a time when manufacturing and mining are shedding jobs, SA’s tourism sector is growing roughly three times faster than the overall economy. This is despite having endured a very difficult year.

Cape Town lost 15%-20% of its expected tourist arrivals due to doomsday messaging about Day Zero (when the taps would be turned off), and SAA shed 13% of its seating capacity on international flights between March and September when it dropped several unprofitable routes.

However, the slack was taken up by other airlines, so overall seating capacity remained roughly flat on a year-on-year basis. Next year, it should be up by 3.2%, says Olivier Ponti, vice-president of international travel data analytics firm ForwardKeys.

Ponti shared this data at the African Leaders Forum, held under the auspices of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in Stellenbosch recently. The conference consensus was that when it comes to creating jobs, one of the most effective measures SA could take is to prioritise tourism.

People can be trained very quickly for jobs in this sector and it is highly labour intensive, with some studies estimating that one job is created for every 15 tourists who visit SA. However, the sector supports only 716,000 direct jobs in SA, compared with 4-million in Mexico, 2.5-million in Brazil, 2.3-million in Thailand and 2.2-million in the Philippines.

SA’s tourism sector is regarded as internationally competitive but is still underperforming. Boosting international tourism comes down to improving connectivity and easing visa entry. SA has moved backwards on both scores.

More than 13,000 travellers were refused entry to SA in the year to June 2016 for failing to meet unabridged birth certificate requirements, according to the Tourism Business Council. Though President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised that visa requirements will be relaxed, it remains unclear as to when and how this will occur.

It’s clear that the opportunities are in services, travel and tourism because increasingly manufacturing is becoming automated
Gloria Guevara Manzo

According to Ponti, visa facilitation is the best thing a country can do to corner a share of the rapidly growing market of Chinese travellers, only 1% of whom currently visit Africa.

His research shows that Chinese tourist arrivals increased by 400% in Morocco and by 214% in Tunisia in the six months after visas were abolished, by 85% when Angola simplified its visa procedure, and by 17% when Ethiopia introduced e-visas.

WTTC president Gloria Guevara Manzo believes SA tourism minister Derek Hanekom has a sound tourism strategy and has done well to ease SA’s visa requirements, but he needs to move faster and relax them further.

In 2010, when she was the tourism minister of Mexico, Guevara Manzo got her government to accept travellers with US visas on the basis that because that visa is one of the hardest to get, the security checks carried out by the US should more than suffice. In the following year, Mexico accepted 1.5-million visitors of other nationalities who entered on US visas.

"It’s clear that the opportunities are in services, travel and tourism because increasingly manufacturing is becoming automated," she said. "Tourism can’t be ‘off-shored’ and it brings pride and provides a living to communities which have no other options."

Guevara Manzo believes multidestination products are also an important driver of tourism, but this means countries need to offer regional visas and have effective regional connectivity. These are things that Sub-Saharan Africa lacks, though travellers to East Africa now need only one visa for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

What it means

SA needs to move faster and go further in relaxing visa requirements

The gold standard is the Schengen visa, which covers 26 countries, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation business travel card, which covers 21.

Speaking at the conference, Tshekedi Khama II, Botswana’s minister of tourism, agreed that African countries need to collaborate more, but said too many African leaders fail to realise that tourism is likely to become the mainstay of their economies.

Another way to accommodate more arrivals is to automate airports to reduce queues and transit times.

The Airports Company SA (Acsa) has developed e-boarding gates that read boarding passes electronically, and is working with home affairs to develop an automated immigration system that will ultimately use iris scanners and facial recognition software to authenticate e-passports.

A phase 1 trial will start at Cape Town International Airport in March, according to Acsa COO Fundi Sithebe. SA passengers will present a finger and their passport to be scanned by a machine to digitally authenticate their identity.

In anticipation of increased tourist volumes over the next few years Acsa is building a new, realigned runway and a new domestic arrivals terminal, and expanding the international terminal in Cape Town, as well as increasing the number of apron stands at King Shaka International to accommodate more aircraft.