Sports event ban clouds South Africa's tourism revival

Fri May 6, 2016 8:21am EDT
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By Stella Mapenzauswa

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A weak rand and a government U-turn on restrictive visa rules are helping South Africa's tourism sector to stage a strong recovery after a shaky 2015.

But a ban affecting the country's international sports teams over their failure to field more black players risks setting the industry -- an increasingly vital cog in a struggling economy -- back again.

Foreign visitors dropped nearly 7 percent last year, partly due to new visa regulations requiring children to travel with full birth certificates and visitors from some countries, including China, to appear in person at a South African embassy, often requiring lengthy journeys.

The government relaxed those rules in October, and Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said on Tuesday that the industry, which was also hit by health fears sparked by an Ebola outbreak in West Africa last spring, was on the mend.

"More than ever before, governments around the world are looking to tourism for economic growth. South Africa is no different," Hanekom told parliament.

"Tourism is recovering rapidly from last year's decline (and) 2016 promises to be a year of strong growth."

Over 1 million tourists arrived in South Africa in January, up 15 percent year on year, and the increase was 18 percent in February. Arrivals from China, where authorities now let agencies apply for visas on behalf of travelers, doubled over the period.

In 2013, tourism's direct contribution to South Africa's now ailing economy was 104 billion rand, about 2.9 percent of GDP.   Continued...

Visitors pose for pictures against Table Mountain at a viewing site in Cape Town, South Africa, April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings