For several years until mid-2014, tourist visitors from China were rising 30% annually and China had become South Africa’s 5th largest source of tourists.

Since then, visitor numbers have declined 32%, with a 46% decline in the 4th quarter of 2014.  Wow!
At a time when Chinese outbound international tourists grew close to 20% last year – visitors to Japan up 80%, to Australia up 18% – that takes some doing.
As a result of the decline, Chinese tour operators are now removing South Africa as a destination from their brochures and Air China has postponed a direct flight to South Africa
What happened?
In mid-2014, South Africa introduced new visa laws.  These require citizens of countries where South Africa requires a visa to come to South Africa to appear in person at the embassy or consulate to apply.  There is no “mail in” option available.
Specifically in China, this would require any potential traveler to come to either Shanghai or Beijing (there is one South African visa officer in each location) and wait in the city for several days while biometric data is taken and the visa is processed.  I have heard claims that the cost of travelling for the visa is greater than the cost of travelling to South Africa from China. This is simply diverting Chinese travelers to other countries – Botswana and  Kenya in Africa, Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific.
Why was this new visa law introduced? The South African government’s intent was to do (and to be seen to do) something about illegal immigration into the country.  However, this blunt, one size fits all policy was implemented without regard for the costs it would impose on the potential traveler or whether South Africa had an illegal immigration problem from that specific country.
If South Africa has consulates with visa officers in 20 or 30 cities in China, the issue might have less impact, although the process would still be time consuming.  But they don’t: they just have two.  I can find no research to show that there is illegal immigration of any scale from China to South Africa.
Can it be fixed?
How to get out of this situation before Chinese tourists are put off trying to go to South Africa for good?  One option, although likely to be politically impractical, is to move back to the old mail based visa application system.
Another might be to pay another country’s consulates to perform the service.
A final, slightly longer term, option would be for China to use its ICT partnership with South Africa to fund the installation of a state of the art biometric arrival system for South African immigration officers.  This could collect all the needed biometric information on arrival and make physical visits to a consulate unnecessary. This last option really should be doable and could be a very visible positive outcome from this partnership.
Let’s hope change happens. Otherwise I don’t see a turnaround in the downward trend of Chinese visitors to South Africa any time soon.
Many thanks to the China in Africa podcast for showcasing this issue.
Read more of my views on my blog, Gordon’s View. And please follow me on Twitter.
Image Credit: Flickr/whltravel