South Africa’s tourism industry is recovering from an ill-fated experiment with stricter visa regulations. The country welcomed nearly 3 million tourists in January this year, 15% up on a year ago, according to the tourism ministry this week. In the last quarter of 2015, the number of tourists from China fell by nearly half, and visitors from India dropped by 15%, according to the South African Tourism Services Association.
Tourism has consistently made up 3% of South Africa’s economy in the last decade, and is a key source of jobs and foreign income, according to Statistics South Africa, a government agency. Tourism minister Derek Hanekom attributed the revitalized growth to South Africa’s weakened currency, the elimination of the Ebola outbreak all the way over in West Africa, and scrapping controversial visa restrictions.
The laws were relaxed earlier this year but it could take up to five years for the industry to fully recover, Tourism Business Council of South Africa CEO Mmatati Ramawela said.
In October 2014, South Africa’s Home Affairs department introduced new laws that required all visitors to have their bio-metric data captured in person at an embassy or official visa center. Children were required to travel with a certified unabridged birth certificate and the written consent of a parent where the child was traveling with one parent or a relative.
The new regulations were aimed at a broad number of issues to “balance South Africa’s openness to legitimate travelers,” home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba said at the time. His department’s main concerns were South Africa’s porous borders and national security.
But it was the “legitimate travelers” who may have been worst affected, especially from China and India. The tourism minister Hanekom has since traveled to China and India to reassure visitors that South Africa is once again a hassle-free dream destination.
The improved numbers still reflect a bias toward countries that have historically favored passports. Eight of the top ten visiting nationalities come from countries that don’t need visas, meaning remaining restrictions are still deterring a huge tourism market in the developing world.
South Africa is also missing out on tourists from its own continent. More than 98% of African tourists who visited South Africa, all came from countries within the Southern African Development Community. Citizens of the 15-member trade and diplomatic community do not need visas to travel within the community, a model South Africa, and the rest of the continent, may want to consider expanding.