South Africa Press release from SATSA CEO

“During my 18 years in the tourism industry, I have often reminded myself how fortunate we are in South Africa. Other destinations are sometimes plagued by exogenous shocks — think of acts of terrorism in Kenya, floods in Mozambique or tsunamis in Asia. Yet we now face a moment in which the viability of the South African tourism sector is under threat. The irony is that this is not from terrorism or acts of nature, but from regulations imposed by our own Department of Home Affairs.

Effective from October 1, the new regulations require tourists with children to carry copies of unabridged birth certificates and, for single parents, an affidavit from the other biological parent.

Despite assertions by the department’s director-general, Mkuseli Apleni, that we are not the only country requiring this, the international evidence supports the opposite. The International Air Transport Association (Iata) explains this in a recent letter to Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba: "The processes envisaged by far surpass those established in the Minors Best Practice document adopted by the Iata/Control Authorities Working Group, to which SA was a party."

The mantra from home affairs appears to be that "no one has come forward to explain what the impact of the proposed regulations will be". But officials are ignoring the loud outcry from tourism trade partners in every corner of the world.

What they cannot tell us is which other countries have such onerous requirements. We can find no evidence. Mexico tried to implement something similar some time back but abandoned it very quickly. Two other salient questions remain:

• Was a proper economic and regulatory impact assessment study undertaken? The Board of Airline Representatives of Southern Africa estimates that up to 20% of air travel to SA involves families with children and may therefore be affected. The value in terms of tourism receipts translates into a R7bn loss in tourism contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) and foreign exchange earnings. Jobs will be lost.

• Who was consulted? There was no formal engagement or consultation with any of the tourism industry associations. The tourism sector represents 9% of our GDP and one in every 10 jobs in the country.

That these regulations will have a profound effect on tourism to SA is indisputable. We are losing forward bookings and the goodwill of trade partners as we speak. Key overseas associations and operators have sent an unequivocal message: the new regulations present an extra hurdle, an inconvenience, a cost barrier and a level of uncertainly that will divert tourism from SA to other destinations. What we are not hearing is anyone saying "great new regulations — it’s about time SA complied and joined the rest of the world!" In fact, it is the opposite; these requirements put SA totally out of kilter with any other destination; a tourism pariah of its own making.

When TUI (one of the largest tourism groups, which sells holidays to 198 countries worldwide) writes that "today we can already say with certainty that family tourism to SA will collapse and possibly even come to a complete halt. We know of no other country that requires the submission of an unabridged birth certificate for the entry of children," it may be worth taking note.

Similarly, key international associations such as the World Travel Agents Associations Alliance and the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Associations have also written to Gigaba to warn of a direct economic effect.

Visa-free travel to SA from key markets in North America and Europe accounts for 55.5% of all overseas tourist arrivals. It is in these markets where we will now see a significant effect. In the booming market of China, expensive translation of documents will add to the cost. The average cost of a translated affidavit in Brazil is $100. Equally, getting a copy of a birth certificate from a small rural village in Africa could take months.

The industry is heartened by the recent statement that Gigaba is open to reconsidering unabridged birth certificates. We hope this extends to implementing the introduction of biometric visas. The tourism sector concurs with Gigaba on the need for collecting biometric data as a measure of added security. What we are warning against is the need for in-person applications. It is thus about the "when" and "where" of biometric data collection, not the principle.

India and China are large countries with only two visa centres each (Mumbai and Delhi, and Beijing and Shanghai, respectively). This means visa applicants who live outside these two centres will have to fly up to four hours to appear in person (and maybe stay overnight) just in order to obtain a visa. But, in reality, they are likely to switch destination to Australia, Thailand or Tanzania. Michael Tollman, CEO of Cullinan Holdings, who has invested in building an extensive presence in the Chinese market, estimates that tourism from China will decline by 70% if these measures are implemented. Add to this the anticipated response from potential foreign investors or importers wishing to visit SA, and you begin to understand the economic effects beyond tourism.

Other countries that collect in-person biometrics either have a significant number of visa centres in China and India, or have moved to rendering biometric data on arrival. The UK and the US have 12 and five visa application centres in India, respectively. But it is not just the rich countries that embrace the new technology. India has just announced that it will soon have nine airports that can deal with e-visas and biometric data collection upon arrival. Australia does not require biometric visas from countries from where it seeks to grow tourism, such as SA, India and China. Tourists from just about every country in the world can apply for Australian e-visas online. Both Korea and Japan issue biometric visas on arrival. France has scrapped the need for biometric visas for Chinese travellers.

All of this points to a world that understands the competitive nature of the tourism sector — without compromising security. It is the only economic sector in which we compete against every other country on the planet. International tourism to SA grew by an annual average of 7% over the past two years. Against a backdrop of prolonged strikes in other key sectors and a general level of economic stagnation, it is the only major industry bucking the trend.

We know Gigaba has good intentions. Security and prevention of child trafficking are very important. But his department let him down by not informing him of the unintended consequences and international best practice. There are much cleverer ways of achieving the admirable objectives. That is why we believe a 12-month moratorium on implementation is called for. This will allow for fresh consultation, and a comprehensive economic and regulatory impact study. The financial cost of introducing biometric data-capturing on arrival will be much lower than the economic cost of scaring off tourists, trade and investment.

In addition, estimates are that the government will have to invest more than R40m in a public relations campaign to help repair the damage caused by negative perceptions of these new measures in the global market.

In the private sector, we have this odd habit of listening to our customers. We urge Gigaba to listen to his.

David Frost is CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association and was a special adviser to former tourism ministers Pallo Jordan and Valli Moosa.