Tourism will suffer until government changes rules - Airline boss

The new immigration regulations introduced by the Department of Home Affairs have had a devastating effect on the growth in visitors to South Africa — and will continue to harm the industry until government changes its stance.

This is the view of Comair CEO Erik Venter‚ speaking as his company celebrated 20 years of franchise partnership with British Airways.

“The changes have had a serious effect in tourism in South Africa. We have been talking to a number of tour operators in China‚ Europe and America about this. They have been out and about‚ advising their clients not to come to South Africa. The biggest problem is that people never come because of these issues. South Africa is very much advertised by word of mouth. We don’t have strong advertising in other countries. Our tourism depends very much on the people who are coming here to tell their friends and family about their experience. When they experience the problems that we have in immigration‚ then they go back home and tell people not to come here‚” said Venter.

The biometric system‚ which captures travellers’ fingerprints at South Africa’s ports of entry‚ was introduced by the the department in April last year‚ but rolled out in earnest in June this year at 65% of Home Affairs’ counters at terminals for arrivals and transit passengers. Compounding the problem was the confusion over the requirement for foreign visitors to travel here with unabridged birth certificates for their children.

Venter warns that these regulations introduced by Home Affairs have to change in order to help boost tourism in the country.

“Until these regulations are changed we are going to struggle.”

The Tourism Business Council of South Africa on Friday revealed the extent of disruption for tourists landing at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport‚ measured during 1-18 October 2016: Visitors stood in line at immigration at peak times for between 90 minutes to four hours; 800 passengers have missed connecting flights due to the delays; 24 domestic and nine international flights were delayed. International Migration Services (IMS) counters were only manned at 40% on average.

The council also told MPs in the Portfolio Committee on Tourism meeting in parliament that‚ as a result of the contentious unabridged birth certificate regulation‚ 13‚246 people were denied boarding to South Africa for the period June 2015 to July 2016. Taking into account that a tourist to South Africa spends on average R13‚000 per day‚ South Africa has lost potential revenue of R7.51 billion because of this regulation‚ according to TBCSA.

 Home Affairs defended the biometric system at a separate briefing in Johannesburg on Friday‚ and said it will even be introduced at land ports next year.

“Biometric capturing enhances our capacity to uniquely identify individuals and confirm the identity of travellers with the highest possible degree of certainty‚ security and efficiency‚” said Home Affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni. “Although it has increased the processing time per traveller‚ it remains a key component in order to protect our national security.”

He acknowledged there are problems in implementing the technology‚ but this was the fault of the austerity measures imposed on the department by National Treasury.

 Apleni said the department does not have enough personnel to deal with the rise in the number of people arriving for processing at OR Tambo International Airport — the average number of travellers cleared per month increased from 668‚882 in 2015 to 669‚621 in 2016. He said this increase in demand had put pressure on the 87 immigration counters at the airport.

“We are currently managing a four-shift system per week‚ reinforcing our day shift to deal with terminals experiencing a high volume of travellers. This translates into a situation where more than 40% of our immigration counters cannot be operational at peak periods‚ given limited staff capacity and the need to balance shift operations over a 24-hour cycle‚” Apleni said.