TOURISM: Fueling positive reforms in air travel

( In the pic - Minister of Tourism Mr Derek Andre Hanekom responds to questions regarding the SONA delivered by President Jacob Zuma on thursday 12/02/2015). International Cooperation, Trade and Security ( ICTS ) Cluster chaired by Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Siyabonga Cwele held at Imbizo Media Centre, Cape Town, 15/02/2015. Siyasanga Mbambani/DoC.

By Glenda Zvenyika

MANY aviation analysts and commentators bemoan the fact that in Africa, like in several other parts of the developing world, air travel is expensive, often inconvenient and therefore inaccessible. This, unfortunately, perpetuates the prejudicial perceptions that only a privileged few can enjoy travel by air.

Indeed to many, air travel remains inaccessible, yet desirable and often times an aspirational mode of transportation. There are historical and economic reasons for this, but without any shadow of doubt there is a need for urgent positive change to enable more people to travel by air. It is therefore time to dump debilitating policy uncertainties that continue to shackle the aviation sector behind us. 

The timing for that change is clearly opportune, given the renewed economic and political optimism in South Africa, which will most certainly reverberate throughout the continent. The resounding commitment given by government to this renewal is reassuring.

The biggest challenge is not the lack of ideas to effect the necessary policy changes, but the fact that there is a view that the industry is not cooperating sufficiently to push for bold reforms in order to revolutionise air travel for the benefit of all. It has long been observed and criticised that players work in silos. It is these discords that often create policy impasses. 

Concerted efforts must be made to push aviation and tourism stakeholders to establish mechanisms to collaborate even closer in order to tackle the enduring difficulties that inhibit air travel and hinder tourism growth. These difficulties include visa dispensation, economic regulation of air transport, safety and security policies and foreign airline operator licences.

South African Tourism visitor arrival statistics are a telling measure, confirming that where we experience a decline or slow growth in tourist arrivals, is precisely where these problems are most impactful. The most recent statistics show that South Africa welcomed a total of 4 423 165 tourists in 2018 compared to the 4 308 358 tourists that visited South Africa during the same period the previous year – a scant increase. It remains to be seen what the 2019 figures will reflect.

But despite all these and many other challenges, it is important to remain optimistic (albeit cautiously) about the future if the bold and much-needed clarity provided by the then Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, during his address at the inaugural Board of Airline Representatives South Africa (BARSA) Aviation Summit, is anything to go by. 

Minister Hanekom said he was in talks with his other cabinet colleagues to robustly tackle the challenges presented by visa restrictions and unabridged birth certificates, which have caused so much confusion, frustration in the tourism sector and restricted travel into South Africa. Looked at differently, the mooted introduction of e-visas alone could ease the travel restrictions that are experienced and promote growth in the travel and tourism industry. The Minister was very clear and emphatic that each touch point on a traveller’s journey, from touchdown to take off, needs to be of exceptional quality to attract more visitors.

Even more pleasing for long-term sustainability of the industry, Minister Hanekom’s assertion was fully endorsed by the then Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe, who committed government to working with all role-players to make sure the industry is supported and becomes competitive.  This is a positive development because what hinders African airlines from prospering is, in the main, an inconducive regulatory environment. Cognisant of this, organisations such as the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA) strongly argue for liberalisation of policies and regulations, including support for the Single African Air Transport Market to create efficiencies and expand Intra- Continental connectivity.  

It is refreshing that the Department of Transport has publicly committed to do everything possible to fast track the review of processes in respect of the Foreign Operator Permits (FOP). A new FOP application dispensation is so crucial and urgent, as it would immediately create economically viable, secure and stable conditions for both African and International airline operations to and from South Africa.  

The concept of Open Skies as envisioned in the Yamoussoukro Decision is not new nor different. Other markets across the world have been down this road for a long time. However, Africa is lagging behind on this despite it being classified as a high growth region (HGR) with the highest potential for growth over other HGRs like India and Brazil. 

An Open Skies policy is important because of its huge potential to grow regional economies across the continent. Opening up the skies means more competition, and more travel options. More travel options mean cheaper travel, and therefore more travellers. An Open Skies policy would boost the tourism sector and invite all the benefits associated with it. Besides job creation, community upliftment and other indirect economic benefits, people would see increased trade and foreign direct investment due to investors having easier access to their target markets. Most importantly for South Africa, more airlines will come into the local market.

Without doubt, there is a need for urgent positive change to enable more people to travel by air. Collaboration within stakeholders in Africa is key to achieving this and the winds of change are already ‘flying’ refreshingly across our land.