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Chinese Tourism to South Africa Up, But Visas a Barrier

With its rolling winelands, picturesque coasts and iconic wildlife, South Africa is a prime destination for international tourists, but industry experts say the government needs to work on attracting more visitors from one massive market: China.

Arrivals from China were up in the first 11 months of 2023 thanks to the Asian giant’s reopening and new direct flight routes, said Thandiwe Mathibela, a spokeswoman for South African Tourism, the tourism marketing arm of the South African government.

“China saw a massive 215.7% surge, amounting to 34,669 arrivals. The reopening of the Chinese market and the initiation of direct flight routes have catalyzed a resurgence in arrivals, highlighting the vast potential and significance of this market to South African tourism,” she told VOA.

But Chinese visitors to South Africa still make up a very small share of overall foreign arrivals. From January of last year until November, around 8 million tourists traveled to South Africa, according to government figures. Tourists from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany accounted for the most visitors.

“Led by our minister of tourism, we continue to seek ways to make South Africa even more accessible to the Chinese visitors who want to come visit South Africa to experience our rich culture and heritage,” Mathibela said.

Industry experts as well as the government acknowledge that South Africa’s visa system remains a major hindrance. Chinese who want to visit the country have to apply for a visa in advance and critics say the process is time-consuming and opaque.

“Our current visa system is not warm, welcoming or easy to navigate in attracting Chinese tourists,” Rosemary Anderson, chairperson of the national trade association for the hospitality industry, FEDHASA, told VOA.

“South Africa must streamline its visa process to fully capitalize on the vast potential of the Chinese tourism market. The nuances of this key market, such as a penchant for guided group travel, necessitate extensive support throughout the trip,” she said.

Solutions could include either a visa exemption for Chinese nationals, or introducing a visa-on-arrival system, she said.

“South Africa is popular with the Chinese market due to its rich cultural and natural assets. … Streamlining the visa process is critical to retain Chinese travel to South Africa and prevent further loss to competitor countries,” Anderson noted.

Kenya, Zimbabwe and many other African countries that also offer attractions like wildlife safaris are either visa-free or offer visa-on-arrival for Chinese visitors.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stressed the importance of the tourism sector ahead of last year’s summit in Johannesburg of the BRICS group of emerging nations, which includes both China and South Africa, and a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“South African Tourism expects that inbound Chinese tourism will recover to pre-COVID levels by 2026. We will be actively promoting our country as a tourism destination for Chinese tourists. … It is encouraging that direct flights between South Africa and China are increasing,” he said.

Currently there are only direct flights between Johannesburg and China’s capital of Beijing or manufacturing hub Shenzhen, operated by Air China, but South African Airways is reportedly working on restarting flights too.

In November, Tourism Minister Patricia De Lille told Bloomberg she would like to see visa requirements for Chinese short-term visitors waived or eased.

Late last year, South African government officials traveled to China where they held events to promote South Africa as a tourist destination.

“South Africa supports the increase in the frequency of direct flights between South Africa and China to bring convenient services to more Chinese travelers. We have prioritized the facilitation of Mandarin language training through the Chinese Culture International Exchange Centre,” De Lille said at an event in Beijing.

The Chinese side is also pushing for South Africa to make the visa process easier.

“We look forward to the South African side making visa facilitation arrangements for Chinese nationals,” said Ambassador Chen Xiaodong last month. “That will attract more Chinese tourists and businesspeople to visit the Rainbow Nation and therefore boost our people-to-people exchanges and practical cooperation.”

He noted that China is the world’s largest source country for outbound tourism and that before the pandemic, Chinese people would make about 150 million outbound trips a year.

Rachel Wang, manager of Asian Sun, a tour operator in South Africa that caters to the Asian market, was skeptical about promises to fix the visa system, telling VOA there has long been talk of South Africa doing so but so far nothing has happened.

As well as visas, the economic slowdown in China is a barrier to more Chinese coming to South Africa, Wang said. “They’re going to cheaper destinations,” closer to home.

Source: VOA

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