South Africa must make tourism, open skies priority - expert

Carin Smith

Cape Town - The South African government must think seriously about liberalising the country's skies and addressing the impact of the current visa regulations, according to David Scowsill, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

"When I met with President Jacob Zuma in the past I showed him the importance of the contribution the tourism industry makes and can make to SA's gross domestic product (GDP)," Scowsill told Fin24 during a visit to Cape Town after he addressed the World Routes Strategy Summit in Durban.

He also recently attended the joint high level forum of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on the importance of the aviation industry working hand-in-hand with the wider travel and tourism sector in order to encourage job creation and economic growth.

"The two industries are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. One cannot survive without the other," said Scowsill.

"African states must work together to open the continent’s skies in order to maximise the potential of the travel and tourism sector.”

Scowsill emphasised that the lack of open skies in Africa is due to protectionist fears among many governments on the continent.

"The economic potential of tourism in Africa is remarkable. According to our figures it will rival Asia Pacific for growth in the next decade. But for this to materialise or even be exceeded, it needs individual nations to work together on progressively implementing the Yamoussoukro Agreement signed over 25 years ago,” he emphasised.

“The role of aviation in creating jobs and driving economic growth is too important to be ignored, particularly when restrained by one ministry’s mandate to protect a national airline.

The industry requires a coherent aviation policy. It cannot make financial sense for a country to protect one or two companies, at the expense of the economic growth of an entire industry."

He said travel and tourism generates economic growth, jobs and investment. Globally the travel and tourism industry supports 277 million jobs, which equates to 1 in 11 jobs on the planet.

Scowsill also pointed out that travel and tourism is also an export sector. Last year the industry generated nearly 6% of the world’s export dollars.

"Aviation liberalisation creates more routes, greater competition and lower fares. We urge the continent’s leaders to fully liberalise aviation for the potential of our industry to be fully realised,” said Scowsill.

"Ultimately markets have to liberalise and compete. In South America, for instance, there are now only three airline groupings and they are all in the private sector. When the airways are liberalised national carriers must learn to compete and be sustainable or go out of business."

He pointed out that the total economic contribution of travel and tourism to South Africa's GDP was R357bn or 9.4% in 2014 and this contribution was expected to grow by 4.3% per year over the next ten years.

The industry supported 1.5 million direct, indirect and induced jobs in 2014, which represented 9.9% of total employment in SA. Travel and tourism contributes nearly 10% of world GDP.

That is why he urges African governments on behalf of the WTTC to get involved in discussions about aviation policies so that all role players can have clarity when making long term decisions.

"A government should take a view on aviation. Does it want more jobs to be created in the industry or does it want to protect its national airline?" asked Scowsill.

"We have seen that these kinds of discussions are the most effective when the president of a country gets involved. The same goes for visa issues, as the ones SA currently face."

SA's visa issues

Scowsill explained that the WTTC supports any government intervention regarding child trafficking, but pointed out that many countries found good ways to tackle the issue of porous borders without resorting to unabridged birth certificates.

"This has been a step too far by the SA government in our opinion. No other country requires this and it has already led to a decline in inbound tourism to SA. We urge Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the inter-ministerial committee to look carefully at this issue and to make changes to the current visa regime,” he said.

As for the second visa hurdle recently created by the SA government, the requirement of biometric data to be taken at the point of departure, Scowsill said most countries record those kinds of data at the point of arrival.

In his view the current requirement is also having a dramatic impact especially on business travel to SA and on the Chinese tourism market, which is an important new source market for SA.

In his view, for the best economic results, it is also important for SA and other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to try and create a common visa structure for the region.

"Make it easy for people to come here. A common visa for the region, a common free trade zone and open skies - even if started among just four or five neighbouring countries - will get the positive economic impact going," said Scowsill. He praised a similar move in East Africa as an example.

He pointed out that foreign airlines are being put off participating in African markets by a range of factors, including high fuel cost, protectionist tendencies by governments towards their national carriers, monopolies on ground services, as well as problems with maintenance and infrastructure.

"It is not that vision of politicians which is lacking. We fully support the International Air Transport Association's (Iata) encouragement for the implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision, which pledged to liberalise air services between 44 countries. Yet, over 25 years after that historic commitment, progress has been slow. It is the implementation that has failed," cautioned Scowsill.

"In that time, Europe’s skies have become fully liberalised to airlines from within the bloc, creating the example which parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America have followed.

The Gulf Carriers were born and grew to a point of becoming major global forces. So much time has passed and so little liberalisation on the African continent."

He urged the leaders of the African Union to make the long-held dream of open skies a reality.