Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

The South African tourism industry rejoiced last week when president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country would be introducing amendments to regulations applying to foreign minors traveling to South Africa.

South Africa's restrictive immigration laws, and especially the requirement for families to travel with unabridged birth certificates and parental consent forms, has had a severe impact on the country's competitiveness as a destination since the regulations were introduced in 2015.

The Tourism Business Council of South Africa reported that as many as 13,246 people were denied boarding to South Africa for the period of June 2015 to July 2016 because of the requirement that minors travel with an unabridged birth certificate.

The following year, a total of 623 travellers were reportedly denied boarding between Dec. 9, 2016, and Jan. 14, 2017, by various airlines, while 1,222 minors were refused arrival at the country's ports of entry, including airports and land borders.

The tourism industry was positive that changes were imminent as Ramaphosa said during last week's press conference: "Within the next few months, amendments will be made to the regulations on the travel of minors; the list of countries requiring visas for South Africa will be reviewed, and an e-visa pilot will be implemented. These measures have a huge potential to boost tourism and to make business travel into our country more conducive."

Just days' later, minister of home affairs Malusi Gigaba confirmed that changes were on the horizon, but he put a damper on the joy by saying the additional documentation, although not required would be "strongly recommended."

Said Gigaba: "The key changes will be that rather than requiring all foreign national traveling minors to carry documentation proving parental consent for the traveling minor to travel, we will rather strongly recommend that travelers carry this documentation. Immigration officials will only insist on documentation by exception, in high-risk situations, rather than for all travelers, in line with practice by several other countries."

What exactly consists of a "high-risk situation" remains unclear, but Gigaba stipulated that "rather than denying entry where documentation is absent, travelers will be given an opportunity to prove parental consent." He added that more information would be given in an international travel advisory, which will be issued before the end of October.

"Home Affairs issued an obfuscated message that serves only to confuse travelers, much in the way it did when the regulation was first introduced three years ago," David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa), the voice of inbound tourism in southern Africa, reacted to the home affairs minister's announcement.

Frost explained that issuing an international travel advisory only in October, after the vague statements that an unabridged birth certificate may be requested by immigration officials, simply reintroduces the confusion Satsa fought many years to dispel and undermines President Ramaphosa's attempts to make it easier for foreign travelers to visit South Africa.

Henk Graaff, managing director for SW Africa, agreed and said: "Whilst it sounds positive, the new announcement is also vague and could potentially confuse our clients further. We will therefore continue to advise clients that they need these documents until such time as when things are clarified 100%."

Graaff explained that SW Africa has had  a number of clients that were turned away as a result of the regulations.

"The most recent was a Czech Republic family who could not get the missing document in time and had to cancel their entire trip. We managed to get our suppliers to agree to accept a postponement but only up until the end of their financial year, after which the booking would be treated as a 'no-show.'"

Graaff added that the requirements have  affected family travel to South Africa  negatively as there are many single parents or second marriages where respective biological parents live far from each other. This makes it time-consuming and laborious to prepare all required documents. He said: "Many families simply opt for one of the many alternative destinations of offer to them , rather than traveling to South Africa."

Onne Vegter of Wild Wings Safaris said the bureaucracy of obtaining the documents needed to travel with children had been a real obstacle for many families wanting to visit South Africa.

"We have had a couple of cases where clients were unable to obtain the correct documents and ended up canceling their trip," Vegter said. "On a recent trip through Heathrow, I asked the check-in lady at the British Airways counter how often she had to turn away families traveling to South Africa because they did not have the correct documents. Her response: every single day."

Sunit Sanghrajka, Safari Pros member and president and founder of Alluring Africa, added that many  members have had guests denied boarding by airlines because of the ambiguity of the rules.  He said: "As much as we try to educate and assist guests, a little technicality could ruin an entire vacation.  Airlines are overly thorough because they don't want to be stuck with the responsibility of bringing the guests back at their expense."

Simon Stobbs, Wilderness Safaris' business unit manager for North America, explained it has been difficult to quantify the impact of the regulations. He said: "We rely on the travel trade to inform us when families change their plans to travel to South Africa. Based on feedback it seems that a number of families did in fact change plans after hearing about the documentation required. We are also not sure how many people did not even consider South Africa as a destination because of these requirements."

Stobbs added South Africa is competing in a space where many countries are working hard to attract family and multigenerational travelers. The less barriers we have to people visiting South Africa, the better for us.

According to Vegter, the only viable option is for the government to do away completely with the requirement to carry an unabridged birth certificate and parental consent affidavit. "A valid passport should be the only travel document required for children," he said.

Vegter explained it is important to relax the visa requirements for traveling families as South Africa offers a wealth of family-friendly travel experiences and is the best destination for malaria-free safaris. He added: "It is also extremely good value for families with children, because of the favorable exchange rate and large selection of affordable accommodations options for families."

Sean Kritzinger, co-owner and executive chairman of Giltedge Africa, agreed that South Africa is extremely well equipped for the family market. "Our malaria-free safaris in the Madikwe and Eastern Cape are extremely popular amongst families. The wildlife experience is such an incredible lifetime moment to share with one's children or grandchildren, and it's a dream holiday for many families around the world."

Also Sanghrajka said South Africa offers great value, easy accessibility with direct flights on SAA, first world infrastructure and tourism facilities. He said: "Perfect climate.  Something of interest to every age group. South Africans love to travel with their children; hence the hotels, lodges and tourism infrastructure is built to accommodate how their citizens like to travel. Nannies are readily available at hotels and camps. Malaria-free options are available for wildlife areas. English is spoken by everybody so communication is easy."

For now, the travel industry is waiting with bated breath for more clarifications at the end of October. Paul Tully explained that any possible overhaul to the current requirements for families should be to make travel easier. He said: "While countries and governments must certainly ensure child safety, regulations must not get too complicated and confusing for both the traveler and border officials. Why implement regulations that are simply not required? Rather tighten security checks at borders and airports than to have unnecessary bureaucracy that may prevent legally entitled families to travel in the first place." 

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