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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist


Tourism: Visa waivers not extended to massive Chinese market

Australia has left SA behind in its ease of access for travellers. Visas can be done in different languages and take no time at all.


South Africa is losing out on a potential tourism bonanza from visitors from China because visa red tape and inefficiency at the department of home affairs is strangling this virtually untapped market. The same is true of other countries in Asia, says an expert. The Chinese market is huge, even in global terms – and is growing. ALSO READ: Tourism takes a knock with deaths of holidaymakers Before the Covid pandemic in 2020, 115 million Chinese travelled abroad, yet just 100 000 of them came to South Africa. According to Cape tourism marketing body Wesgro, Chinese tourists spent an estimated…

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South Africa is losing out on a potential tourism bonanza from visitors from China because visa red tape and inefficiency at the department of home affairs is strangling this virtually untapped market.

The same is true of other countries in Asia, says an expert. The Chinese market is huge, even in global terms – and is growing.

ALSO READ: Tourism takes a knock with deaths of holidaymakers

Before the Covid pandemic in 2020, 115 million Chinese travelled abroad, yet just 100 000 of them came to South Africa. According to Cape tourism marketing body Wesgro, Chinese tourists spent an estimated R16 000 each in SA in 2017.

Being South Africa’s largest trading partner in Africa, a member of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) and a champion of people-to-people exchange, has not yielded a favourable reception for Chinese citizens on short visits to SA.

A visa waiver has been reserved for more than 100 countries, including Brics members countries Brazil, Russia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But not China.

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More than 70 countries, including the UAE, Morocco, Zambia and Tanzania have offered Chinese nationals visa waiver or visa-upon-arrival arrangements.

An SA-Australia matrix study conducted by the South African Tourism Services Association (Satsa) and shared with government, has revealed in 2019, Australia recorded a surge to 10.3 million Chinese tourists, compared to South Africa’s one million.

In the same year, Indian arrival figures in Australia accounted for over two million tourists, compared to SA’s one million.

Catching up

Satsa chief executive David Frost said: “This paints a damming picture – meaning we have gone backwards in the two largest and fastest-growing outbound markets in the world. By contrast, Australia has enjoyed sustained and significant growth.”

Frost said the trend of dwindling Asian tourist numbers to South Africa began to show in 2013, pointing to government’s failure to process visas with speed.

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“If it takes 30 minutes to process one visa application, we are not going to achieve the numbers compared to Australia – a blight on government and home affairs in particular.

“Australia has surpassed South Africa in the sphere of tourism because it introduced a friendly visa regime, with application forms written in Mandarin and other foreign languages.

“In South Africa, the visa application process is only conducted in English – making it difficult for non-English speakers.

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“Our e-visa is not applicable to group travel and it is a system which always crashes,” said Frost. “If South Africa was able to sustain the initial growth rate in terms of arrivals and kept pace with the growth rate Australia enjoyed, additional billions would have come into the South African economy between 2012 and 2018.

“Instead, there was a decline in arrivals over this period.” Except for Tourism Minister Patricia de Lille, Frost said home affairs had failed to engage with the industry.

Simplified Chinese

There are plans to enhance the e-visa website by translating it into simplified Chinese. De Lille and her department have been in discussions with airlines like Air China and Cathay Pacific to increase flights to South Africa.

Understaffing at home affairs offices abroad, was “a big issue”. There are only two officials to process visa applications in Beijing and another two in Shanghai.

Department of home affairs spokesperson David Hlabane failed to reply to requests for comment.

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