Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Frustration With SA Visa Rules

There is growing frustration in South Africa's tourism industry as the fallout from onerous requirements becomes clear, with fewer tourists visiting the country and hotel rooms left empty.

The new regulations - which make it more difficult for travellers with children and for visitors from countries such as China that require visas - are biting at a time when the South African economy badly needs a boost.

South Africa's home affairs department has said the measures are intended to prevent child trafficking and government officials claim 30 000 children are trafficked in the country every year.

However, the department has recorded just 23 cases of child trafficking over the past three years.

Grant Hughes, 45, from Suffolk, was booked to fly from Heathrow to Addis Ababa and on to Durban with Ethiopian Airlines last Wednesday.

He was travelling with his fiancée to the city for their wedding and was accompanied by his children, 11 and 15.

But the airline, which had not told them birth certificates were obligatory, refused to let them board the plane.

Responsibility rests with passengers to ensure they have the necessary documents to enter a country.

Airlines face fines from the South African authorities if they carry passengers under 18 who do not have a birth certificate and are therefore inadmissible.

“I would have accepted it had it just been me who had made an oversight,” said Mr Hughes.

“However, we were told that this is a regular occurrence and roughly 10 families a night are being turned away across various airlines.”

David Frost, chief executive of the Southern African Tourism Services Association, said: “It's an appalling way to behave when we should be doing everything to foster tourism. With the rand so favourable, we should have had double-digit growth but, out of the UK, we have been basically flat.” On a typical long-haul flight departing for South Africa, he said, between 10 and 20 people are being denied boarding.

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and South African Airways, which fly direct from the UK to Johannesburg and Cape Town, say they do all they can to inform passengers about the rules.

BA emailed all customers who have travelled to South Africa in the past year, as well as those with advance bookings.

The majority of denied-boarding cases known to The Independent involve passengers who book through online travel agents for airlines that do not fly direct.

A leading travel industry figure, who did not want to be named, said: “South Africa looks intent on shutting down family tourism. Kenya and Tanzania can't believe their luck - this is the best promotion they've ever had.”

Lorenzo Fioramonti, a University of Pretoria professor and Unesco chair in regional integration and migration issues, said criminals behind child trafficking “can easily bribe officials or forge [birth] certificates to travel... Any graphic designer with basic abilities could forge one.”

An official at Johannesburg's main airport was recently suspended over accusations he tried to solicit a “fine” from a group of schoolgirls on a student exchange by claiming they had the incorrect documents, according to the Association of Southern African Travel Agents.

Other tourists have been prevented from boarding flights, included a group of Dutch teenagers travelling to do aid work.

In a separate immigration requirement, as of last year visitors from countries requiring visas, such as China and India, must apply in person at a South African office in their home country so that their biometric data can be collected.

Often this would mean a flight to the nearest big city so many tourists are simply choosing to go elsewhere.

An open letter from 20 international airlines last year warned that the immigration requirements would be a “tourism, PR, economic and political disaster”.

The South African government conceded in October that the new rules had had “unintended consequences” and promised a number of revisions but domestic tourism officials say it is dragging its feet on implementing changes.