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They’re still coming

South Africa is something of a conundrum. Life here is hard, yet people want to visit, want to work, want to play in our home. We don’t always make it easy for them and every obstacle we put forward is at the detriment to our tourist industry, one of the key aspects of our economy. Against many odds, tourists are still coming to South Africa. Claire Mathieson asks whether we shouldn’t be doing more for our tourist industry and for each other.

For many of my fellow South Africans, one of the greatest joys is welcoming a foreigner to our country, to our home. We are well aware of the natural beauty, the value for money, the entertainment, flavours and friendly nature of the place we call home. We are equally aware of the numerous issues facing the country and some of the reasons tourists might not want to visit. While these negatives seem to increase by the year, I’m pleased to report that people are still coming – something we should be grateful for and something we should encourage.

It’s not easy being a tourist. First of all it’s a challenge to decide where to go. Many countries seem to offer similar things. Flights and ease of access are usually the first consideration. How much will it cost me to get there and how long will it take? While Cape Town remains the primary tourist destination in the country, our national carrier does not fly here directly. Instead, if you’d like a direct flight, you are reliant on foreign airlines. On the one hand, SAA’s decision to always stop in Johannesburg does help boost the economy and the likelihood of tourist activities in that city and surrounds, but on the other hand, those that might be keen on heading to the Cape will likely opt for an airline that flies directly. Or, if you are coming from somewhere that requires a stopover, you’re far more likely to opt for a single Middle Eastern or European stopover than an additional stop in Jozi.

The next step is to consider ease of access once you’re on the ground. There has been no end to the debacle around the requirement for minors to travel with unabridged birth certificates; some countries don’t even know what these are. A family with children under 18 would do much better to go to another country to avoid the bureaucracy of paperwork or worse: get stuck at immigration and be turned around without formally stepping foot in the country.

Visas are no less a pain for adults. Curiously, it seems particularly hard for adults coming from other African countries. Citizens of our neighbouring countries often travel through Johannesburg; even they require a transit visa. It seems odd that our SADC community has such great potential in its partnership, yet when it comes to the citizens on the ground (or in the air), life isn’t easy.

Application for visas can also be a challenge. A Bangladeshi colleague recently was told she needed to travel to the nearest embassy – in Sri Lanka! She had to appear in person with proof of flights, accommodation and a letter from a South African. This isn’t the only example. It would surprise no one that they might opt not to travel to South Africa because of the time, cost and effort to get a visa (which might be rejected on a technicality or, as many of us believe, someone behind the counter having a bad day).

India’s recent introduction of an e-visa, where tourists can apply and pay online, has resulted in a 37% increase in tourist arrivals in the country. Talk has started that South Africa will also introduce something similar. This excites me, especially after my recent passport renewal took just five days, and my new smart ID was done entirely online with the exception of the biometric capture which I did at a bank and which took all of six minutes. The streamlining of these processes is something which South Africa is well capable of doing and if it is going to compete with other developing countries also reliant on tourism, it’s going to want to make it easier for tourists to come.

Next up is hotel accommodation. We’re not cheap. Granted, most of the hotels are designed for foreigners and are thus priced at international standards – indeed many hotels form part of international hotel groups, so this isn’t too much of a surprise. Thankfully, the Airbnb and traditional B&B industry has proved a boon to travellers. There are now affordable options and excited South Africans willing to host. The downside of this, of course, is that in a place like Cape Town it is becoming exceedingly hard for locals to find rentals. Owners are opting to cash-in on the tourism market instead of long term tenants. This phenomenon has been seen in every major city in the world. Instead of allowing for densification, which the City of Cape Town has done, it would make sense to regulate – to a degree – the informal hotel sector. It is clear a balance needs to be found to promote tourism while avoiding a housing crisis – something which we are already seeing. The recent decisions to award building rights to more high-income developments seems counter-productive to both locals and tourists. Do we really need more R3 million bachelor studios?

Finally, a tourist coming to South Africa needs to consider the issue of safety. We still boast some of the highest murder, robbery and rape statistics in the world – hardly a good advertisement for the would-be traveller. And while we have seen great strides being made in improvement districts and CBD community safety programmes, the headlines don’t lie.

Throw in the drought in Cape Town and beyond, and the warnings of Day Zero, and it’s not the prettiest of pictures. And yet the tourists are still coming. South Africa continues to attract people from all over the globe. While the growth in the past year is down on the global average, we’re still growing!

It’s our natural beauty, our vibrant streets, our complex history and our infectious attitude that tourists hail as highlights. For many, the weak currency (which has strengthened in recent months, perhaps affecting the numbers) makes SA a regular go-to, for others it’s our world-class service, our epic sporting events, or our offers of adventure. These positives seem to outweigh the negatives that bombard our social media accounts and our headlines.

I’ve learnt that if I ever want to feel good about my country, I should just talk to a tourist. They’re quick to remind me that the grass is always greener on the other side – even in times of drought. They’re quick to point out things we see outside our windows on a daily basis. Those things are amazing. South Africa is kind of amazing. And we would do well to remember that and to work towards making our country more accessible to more people.

Despite the odds, the tourists are still coming to South Africa; shouldn’t we as South Africans also come to the party?

Image: South African Tourism/Flickr

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.