ROUTES AFRICA: Opening Borders in Africa

South African Tourism Minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, reveals his dream of making an African e-visa regime a reality, enhancing accessibility within the Continent and developing a hub in Johannesburg.

At the tip of the African continent, South Africa is a long way from most of the rest of the world, and it is therefore not really surprising that it does not function as a major regional hub. But Tourism Minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, wants to change that by encouraging carriers to look on Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport as the key ‘south–south’ hub for the southern hemisphere, linking up the rest of Africa, South America and parts of Asia and Australia.

What is more, Minister van Schalkwyk has a big idea to encourage a leap forward in tourism volumes in South Africa and its neighbours – a pan-African e-visa.  If he can bring about a common e-visa area for southern Africa, the increased flows through Johannesburg could make the hub idea more viable.

The country has increased in popularity as a tourism destination since the end of apartheid. In 2011, according to Statistics South Africa, it received some three million foreign visitors arriving by air, mainly at OR Tambo, with a peak in December and January.

The most common points of origin for foreign visitors were the UK (420,483), followed by the US (287,614) and Germany (235,774). No surprises there perhaps, but in seventh place was India on 90,367, followed by China with 84,862 arrivals, which suggests South Africa can expect more as those economies grow. Of total visitors, 94.3 per cent came as tourists, with business journeys accounting for only 2.2 per cent of traffic, and transit passengers and students making up the remainder.

Traffic is dominated by resident carrier South African Airways (SAA) and to a lesser extent by its low-cost subsidiary Mango, followed by carriers such as British Airways. But what South Africa and southern Africa continues to lack is a central hub for intra-regional travel, to foster tourism and business between the African states bordering South Africa, and van Schalkwyk hopes e-visas and the hub idea may break down this barrier.

His objective is to get rid of much of the bureaucratic hassle of travelling in southern Africa by having a common travel region for all its countries – rather like the European Union’s Schengen agreement. Van Schalkwyk says agreement is near on this becoming a reality. First the good news. Van Schalkwyk, who has been Tourism Minister since 2004, says more than 50 carriers now fly to South Africa, against only 26 in the late 1990s, and that while “obviously a nation such as ours is a long-haul destination from almost everywhere in the world”, a managed liberalisation process has attracted airlines.

“It may sound an old-style philosophy, but we believe that more competition will drive down prices and provide more choices, which are good for a destination,” he explains. Tourist arrivals increased by 10.5 per cent in the first six months of this year and South Africa attracts some 4.25 million tourists a year, including those arriving by land, he adds.

Van Schalkwyk thinks southern Africa as a whole could attract more visitors than it does and that complex visa rules imposed by most countries are a deterrent to this if people wish to visit more than one country. “We believe the world should
move to e-visas, and at the G20 heads of state meeting in Mexico all of them committed themselves to travel facilitation, but not everybody is there exactly at this moment,” he explains.

Van Schalkwyk says the process of getting a single visa for the southern part of the continent agreed upon is “only two countries away from it, and if we can convince them we are there”, he says. “I’d hoped we could have been there already, but it has to do with local political considerations and we hope to get consensus.”

Diplomacy prevents him naming the two countries holding out against the idea, but the intention is that the single visa area will cover South Africa and its neighbours up the west coast of Africa to Angola, and up the east coast to include Tanzania, although not Kenya or the Democratic Republic of Congo. “There are issues around e-visas: safety, technology and income,” he says.

“Many countries still regard visas as a source of income but, quite honestly, probably in most cases it’s negligible, so I don’t know that that can be regarded as a valid argument. The technology is there. So the only real debate is around security, and e-visas will be no less secure, and can be more secure, than traditional ones,” he adds.

If the plan takes off, an e-visa for one country will be valid for all of them. “It will be like Schengen, you just turn up at the border,” he says. Indeed, Van Schalkwyk’s ambitions don’t stop there. He sees e-visas before long giving way to “m-visas, on our cell phone or tablets”. The variety of potential tourism in the region is such that the idea of relieving visitors of the burden of securing multiple visas – which for some require sending passports by post to embassies – has obvious attractions.

South Africa is noted for its beaches, wildlife and wine country as well as Cape Town, its scenic second city. Further north, safaris are big business with the travel industry in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania. Malawi is beginning to enter the game-viewing market and Zimbabwe’s once-successful tourist industry is getting back on its feet after more than a decade of political turmoil. Mozambique is pushing itself as a beach and cultural destination and while Angola is not particularly well-known for tourism, its growing oil industry attracts business travellers.

Van Schalkwyk also sees the common visa area as a means to attract more international flights to both Cape Town and Durban’s new King Shaka International Airport, whose only international service at present is provided by Emirates Airline. “I have no doubt over time that more airlines will use those hubs,” he says.

His other project to bring more airlines to South Africa by using OR Tambo as a southern hemisphere hub is based on the idea that the burgeoning economies of southern Asia and Brazil – and, to an extent, Argentina – will want more air links and that Johannesburg offers a more convenient midpoint than do either the Gulf states or Europe. OR Tambo had an upgrade when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and can now handle the Airbus A380 on runways of 3,300m and 4,400m. Other planned developments mean that, by 2015, the airport is expected to reach a capacity of around 24 million passengers a year.

“Most flights go up north, so anyone travelling south–south has to travel up north then down again, so we firmly believe that Johannesburg has potential to be a hub for south–south travel,” the Minister explains. He predicts that the rapidly growing middle classes in Asia and Brazil will want to travel “the cheapest, shortest, route, which in all probability is through South Africa, rather than via the Middle East”.

Few airlines have as yet shared this view of Johannesburg, admits. “We are not there yet though we have the capacity and as a hub it makes economic sense; it’s simply that people don’t understand it would entail much easier, cheaper flights,” the minister says. “Up to now, tourism volumes have all been in the north, but it’s going to happen [in the south] as that is the way the world is developing and there is lots of potential. It just needs one or two carriers to demonstrate it. It does not take a genius to understand the potential.”

Johannesburg also has hub potential for passengers from South America, Asia and Australia who want to reach what may be the next generation of emerging markets in sub-Saharan Africa, to which it is well connected through SAA’s network linking to the capital cities of most of east and west Africa. SAA also flies to Buenos Aires and São Paulo and to Beijing and Australia “so hopefully other carriers will do so,” says van Schalkwyk.

The main precedent for the ‘south–south hub’ concept is, though, not entirely a happy one from South Africa’s viewpoint. Malaysia Airlines once flew from Kuala Lumpur via Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, but the route was short-lived. “We had the route via Johannesburg but ended it due to aircraft deployment as we have decided to concentrate on destinations in Asia. The flight was not a failure, but we could use the aircraft better. There was no problem with Johannesburg, but we now have no flights to South America,” says an airline spokeswoman.

No South American airline is as yet shown as serving OR Tambo, but it does have flights on Jet Airways to Mumbai, Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, Singapore Airlines to Singapore and Qantas to Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, so the makings of van Schalkwyk’s hub idea may be there. If the visa-free area attracts strong flows of tourists from economies that are growing rapidly, it could be that this will encourage the hub concept.

This article was modified from a story that appears in the latest issue of Routes News, the world air service development magazine, and which can be viewed online here.