Impressed with the turnout at the just concluded Africa’s Travel Indaba 2019 in Durban, South Africa especially participants from the across the continent, DEREK HANEKOM, minister of Tourism, South Africa, thinks tourism prospects for Africa is looking great, but needs innovative products, collaboration, open borders and skies to achieve more. In this interview held during the Indaba, the minister speaks extensively to OBINNA EMELIKE on visa, seamless travel and other related issues.
Is South Africa looking towards visa-on-arrival like some African countries?
The visa-on-arrival in most countries, even if you are from a non visa requiring country, you have to stamp your passport.
Visa-on-arrival could be linked to the eVisa system. It is not a bad idea to do the biometrics. It is a good system because biometrics can be done very quickly upon arrival with photograph, finger prints or what have you. We are also buying into the capturing of biometrics in one of our airports.
But my view of moving towards the free movement of African people across the African continent is not a view that is readily shared by the Department of Home Affairs.
The irony is that all the Southern African Development Community (SADEC) countries have visa exempt. Angola is the most recent country and it is amazing how tourist arrivals leaped up as soon as we waived the visa requirement for Angola. Almost all SADEC come to South Africa without visa: Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana and our immediate neighboring countries.
By the way, of our 10.5 million international visitors, 70 percent come from our immediate neighboring countries, mainly Mozambique, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is our biggest single source market.
Mozambican can come to South Africa without a visa, a Tanzanian can come without a visa, but a Kenyan cannot come without a visa. You cannot see any logic in it. It is a fight we have to fight quite vigorously after the elections. But one thing we have got the cabinet agreement on is apart from all these things; the eVisa, movement towards eVisa among others, is to do a country by country reexamination of which countries need visas and which do not and there are some real anomalies. That has to be a real exercise.
If the Department of Home Affairs with its security considerations says Kenya is danger zone, then they must the case.
There are complains about VFS and its high visa processing charges, which are bigger than visa fees. What do you think?
There has to be a visa processing centre because it might be for different kinds of visas; longer term, short term, students visa, among others.
If we are able to do, or succeed in doing what we intend doing, that is migrate to the eVisa system, the VFS becomes redundant because you will not need to go to either of the consulate or VFS to get your visa.
There are exceptional cases where people want work permit, working visa, student visa, then the embassy or consulate should be well equipped to deal with such visa applications, but not the normal tourist visa application. I spoke to Darkey Africa, the consul general in Lagos and he told me the story of people applying at visa facilitation centers having to make an appointment to have you interviewed, yet you go there physically to make an appointment. Then, the batch of processed visa applications goes to the consulate anyway, the consulate does not process, they check and give them stamp with the recommended days.
There is another story told to us by tour operators in Lagos. People go to the visa facilitation centre and ask for 10 days, I mean tour operators coming with groups and they want 10-12 days and they give them 8 days. That is not fair and it is something I will deal with like fury because it is embarrassing to us.
The visa processing center is a private company and it provides services to a number of companies. They make their money from processing visas, and that is part of the story of Nigeria. So, they will not be enthusiastic for us moving into the eVisa system. The problem is that sometimes companies like the visa facilitation centers may have their supporters in the Department of Home Affairs who protect them and hence are not very keen at moving away from the system.
How do you rate the level of corporation with other African countries in tourism development?
Kenya is a success story for tourism growth. I highlighted this at the opening ceremony of Africa’s Travel Indaba. I mentioned Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt among the countries that are doing well in tourism. Kenya in particular is doing a great job at marketing itself and the numbers are showing. Aside our immediate neighboring countries, Kenya is our second biggest source market, Ghana is our third biggest African source market. We have some agreements with some African countries for collaboration and corporation to lift tourism in Africa. The big issue for us is to deal with is the visa.
Why short visas?
It is crazy.
How do you think other countries can facilitate seamless travel with South Africa?
The first thing is to make sure that the big source markets such as Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya do not need visas to visit.
Secondly, in the event that they need visas, to make it easy to get the visas, as well as, online visas that are not limited to a five-day stay in South Africa. Also, we need to do away with the current system of having to go through the visa facilitation center in person, it is an inconvenience.
But as much as we want to promote intra-African travel, Nigeria for whatever reason has strong links with the United Kingdom; a lot of Nigerians living in the UK, hence people want to go to London for many reasons including family connections. It is a fact that most Nigerians who want to come to South Africa already have the UK visa.
Some destinations in Africa are not accessible due to poor air connectivity, what do you think Africa should do to connect better?
Africa has to blame itself for the poor air connectivity on the continent.
We are one of the 23 signatories to the single air market. But over half of African countries for one reason or the other and the protectionists do not want to be part of it. So, they are standing in the way of easier connectivity between African countries. For instance, Nigerians wanting to travel to Uganda may have to travel to Johannesburg first to get to Uganda and that is crazy.
It is not something South Africa carries responsibility for, African countries have to get serious with the commitments they make; free movement of people, free trade, among others.
Xenophobia is still raising its ugly head, are there no solutions to the menace?
It is just politically, we have to fight it continuously. When you have huge number of Nigerians or Zimbabweans living in certain areas, the sentiment is that they have taken over the jobs. If you go to townships, which I do a lot of times, almost in every township there is a Somali shop owner and those from Bangladesh that is not even from Africa. In most cases it is peaceful because the entrepreneur from Somalia or Bangladesh are better than those from South Africa and they offer good services to the local residents, hence the local residents will like to protect them. They run their shops well and they offer credit.
In the majority of cases there is harmony, but when you have a country like us with high level of unemployment, there is perception that all these Zimbabweans or Nigerians have taken over our jobs, in a particular area. We fight it politically. In the area that I live, Kensington in Johannesburg, in my branch of the African National Congress (ANC), we fight it all the time. There are party members that will come with the xenophobia nonsense because they live in areas where majority of the residents are not South Africans, we say no.
I spent a few years in exile and we were looked after. I even had a Ghanaian passport then. It was because I was in Zimbabwe at the time Ghana came to our rescue. The country was supporting our liberation struggle. Also, we were hosted by Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and many countries of the world. So, we remind them of that to say we will not have the freedom we have today without the support of these African countries.
It is politically education that is the critical thing, when you have large number of unemployed South Africans coming and perceive their businesses or jobs are being taken over, you may experience these ugly incidents.