Grant Thornton, a consultancy, estimates the new visa requirements will cost 100 000 jobs
MONDAY, June 1, is “V Day”. This is not shorthand for victory in war but represents the brave new world of South Africa‘s latest visa regime for foreign tourists.
It is a triumph, however, of obstinacy over common sense, the sort of ritual when you dig in on a huge, if perhaps well-intended, mistake. And it‘s worth reflecting how we landed up here.
Before I do so, I was struck by last week‘s announcement by the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. She advised parliament that, shortly, a fully fledged academy will train diplomats in economic diplomacy. That‘s a useful idea, though one wonders what the course content will look like.
An ambassador is basically a salesman for his or her country. And you‘ve got to sell what the market wants and the unique attributes of your nation.
South Africa has two such offers: its extraordinary treasure trove of mineral wealth and its tourist attractions, especially the combination of the beauty and sophistication of Cape Town and the rugged allure of its game reserves.
When I was ambassador to Argentina, tourism was the easiest sell. The world focus on South Africa during the 2010 World Cup boosted arrivals from Argentina to this country by an extraordinary 122% in that year.
Admittedly, you and your embassy staff would have to be completely asleep or mentally challenged not to have made something of this event in a football-crazy country, since in Argentina soccer is the reigning civic religion.
The following year, 2011, was more interesting and challenging. But even here the numbers went up 78% compared to 2009. The key was to ride the following wind. By using sports tourism, especially promoting school rugby tours (Argentina plays the best rugby in all of the Americas), and using the priceless free publicity from the year before, the success continued. Having visa-free entry to South Africa and direct flights sealed these deals.
Now SAA has pulled the route and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba has put in place an extraordinarily stringent visa regime.
Little wonder that when I returned for a visit to my old embassy last month, the once flourishing tourism section was more a dead zone than the humming centre of activity it had been a short while before.
From next week, all foreign visitors will have to apply in person to a South African embassy or consulate for biometric data, and children under 18 will have to be in possession of unabridged birth certificates.
Goodbye school rugby teams and the like. They‘re now heading to New Zealand and England. Replicate this across much richer tourism markets like India and China, both of which also require visas, and it spells disaster for tourism in this country.
How did we land up in this mess? A short how-to manual of imperilling an industry which, in the face of low growth and 36% unemployment, is an outlier, is instructive.
Bear in mind that tourism last year saw a record 10.3million visitors arrive on these shores to spend in the region of $10.9-billion, and the industry employs about 645000 people and contributes nearly a tenth of the country‘s GDP.
First, Gigaba and his department had to ignore every economic policy document prepared by their colleagues. Never mind the much-spoken-of-only-sometimes-implemented National Development Plan, which has a lot on how tourism can up South Africa‘s game.
There is also the “New Growth Path” of the Ministry of Economic Development and the “Industrial Policy Action Plan” of the Department of Trade and Industry.
Both devote copious pages on how tourism will be a key driver in the government‘s quest for an elusive 5million new jobs.
South Africa‘s most successful businessman, Naspers boss Koos Bekker, was onto something when he recently said, “we have four or five departments within the economic cluster that do not talk to each other and have no commonality in their approach”.
What of the poor man charged with cabinet responsibility for tourism, Derek Hanekom? He seems a hapless bystander as his job gets made ever more difficult. He described the new visa regime as a “negative”, a masterful understatement.
Second, don‘t consult the industry and certainly do not do an impact assessment (and blithely disregard the two already commissioned by the industry) or even a pilot project, before implementing a visa regime unique in the world, and described as “going against the global trend” of making country access easier, not more difficult.
Simon Newton-Smith, the chairman of the board of airline representatives in South Africa, described the process of industry involvement in the decision in waspish terms: “The definition of consultation is having the law gazetted for comment.”
Third, completely disregard your own team players. Forget about an “SA Inc” approach. Mmatsatsi Ramawela, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of SA, took no prisoners in venting his frustration. He said last week: “Home Affairs refuses to meet, negotiate or engage about the looming visa regulations,” which he described as a “disaster”.
Already our tourism from China has fallen 70% and is described by insiders as “‘collapsing”. Grant Thornton, a consultancy, estimates it will cost 100000 jobs.
Fourth, pretend you have never had to give a good-faith answer to the famous question posed by economist John Maynard Keynes. He challenged: “When the facts change, I change my mind — what do you do, sir?”
Actually, we can address that challenge to the man in charge, President Jacob Zuma. In February, he promised a “review” of the visa regulations.
No review happened and, even if far fewer tourists come here, we will be flying high on the wings of dogma and doubling down on a huge mistake.