SA tourism on the ropes with little help from government

When the dark clouds lift and our skies reopen, how welcoming will SA be to international guests? Will the world’s airlines be invited back to our cities? Will our African brothers be encouraged to stay a night before departing on international trips? Will we welcome the families of the world to share our sunshine?

While the obvious answer would be "of course", our political reality is somewhat different. Red tape, political egos and downright blundering have left SA tourism way below its potential as a force for economic good. Though development economists of all stripes continue to stress how tourism can be used as a source of employment, policy continues to hinder the laying of the proverbial red carpet.

There are three problems to be solved when trying to get people to spend money in your country. First, they have to want to come. Generally, SA has done well on this score. We’re nice people, the destination is beautiful, and our food and wine is comparable with anything on offer. The second problem is administrative. You have to allow them to come. Third, they have to get here. That’s a transport problem.

The past few years bear witness to the most terrible policy "own goals". Examples include the requirement for parents to produce birth certificates for accompanying children, biometric data collection for visas and, more generally, visas imposed on countries we should be more favourably disposed to.

These have all contributed to the demise of SA as a destination. Transit visas for certain African countries have become subject to arbitrary taxes, punishing travellers who might otherwise visit before flying on to their ultimate destination.

Some of these regulations have been lifted. With others airline officials are unsure whether they will be fined by the department of transport or Airports Company of SA if they let parents on board without paperwork. These regulations were implemented with haste, but it will take the tourism industry years to repair the reputational damage with international travel agents.

Then there's SAA. Hopefully, Covid-19 will have dealt the deathblow the government was too scared to execute. Apart from the tax billions diverted from schools and hospitals over the years, we should also consider the harm done from crowding out commercial players that could have served those customers and routes.

The government uses entry to our airspace as a bargaining chip in bilateral trade negotiations. While realpolitik may mean it cannot be otherwise, it would be better if entry to our skies and airports were based on our need for tourists, rather than non-tourism related issues fought out over the conference table.

SA should revisit its policy in respect of airport slots. Now, high-demand slots at OR Tambo and Cape Town are dished out by a slot co-ordination committee, using an 80% use-it-or-lose it rule to decide on the best allocation. Commercial trading of high-demand slots, such as that used in the UK, is a far superior solution to allocation by committee.

While politicians talk excitedly about the prospects for tourism in SA, they should be judged by their actions as evidenced by policy. For an industry that purportedly contributes about 10% of GDP, why is the department of tourism considered such a junior ministry? Given the potential for this sector surely it is time for the appointment of a senior political player to this role?

For a brave minister, one solution is for SA to revise its "freedoms of the air", a concept rooted in the Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, which sets about describing general rights to which countries sign treaties. The first two freedoms are described as transit freedoms and relate to the right of international traffic to fly over countries and, if necessary, to stop at local airports for technical reasons.

The next level of basic freedoms includes the right to fly between two countries, one of which must be the airline's country of origin. The highest freedoms allow flights between domestic cities where passengers may fly on to the airline’s country of origin. An example would be an Australian airline flying between cities in New Zealand, which may involve a third leg to Australia.

Given the requirement for tourism and the acute shortage of flight capacity SA now faces, our government should be bold and declare unilateral open skies. This should include not only the right of any airline to visit our country, but the right for foreign airlines to fly routes between SA's towns and cities. Unlike the past, this would offer the best service and lowest prices to citizens and international visitors alike.

This article was first published on BDLive on 19 April 2020
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