Cape Town - South Africa’s tourism industry is seeing an encouraging recovery as tourist arrivals for the month of January 2016 reached a new record, with over a million tourists arriving in the country for the first time ever.
According to data released by Statistics SA, there were 1 012 641 tourist arrivals recorded for the first month of 2016, representing a 15% growth compared to January last year.
Grant Thornton analysis, which takes into consideration travellers who overnight and are not just transiting through SA's ports of entry, shows that January’s record breaking month of arrivals comes off the back of a 7% overall decline in tourism arrivals for the full year of 2015. Despite a stronger finish for South African tourism statistics in the final quarter of last year, overall SA tourist arrivals were dismal for 2015, compared to those arrivals recorded during 2014.
“We welcome this notable level of growth for the first month of the 2016 year, albeit off a low base which was recorded in 2015,” says Lee-Anne Bac, director: Advisory Services at Grant Thornton.
“A bumper month in January clearly indicates that the industry is on the rebound which bears testimony to the tourism sector’s resilience and its ability to bounce back.”
Bac added that breaking through the one million mark is momentous for the country.
“The closest South Africa has ever been to this milestone was in January 2014 when there were 949 000 tourists,” she said. “In fact, for the entire 2015 year tourist arrivals to South Africa never even broke through the 900 000 number in any month.”
The arrivals data reveals that growth was driven by buoyant demand from both overseas and African tourists, with the majority of tourists arriving from African countries (79%) while 21% were from overseas.
Speaking at the opening of World Travel Market Africa during Africa Week, Deputy Minister Tokozile Xasa said there is no doubt that tourism changes lives and communities, whilst adding a deep cultural understanding and appreciation for those enjoying the experience.
"South Africa and indeed Africa as a whole, has been enjoying the growth of this magnificent sector," Xasa said.
Contrary to the positive global performance, the number of international tourists to South Africa declined by -6.8% (or 645 463) in 2015, with a total tourist arrival figure of 8 903 773 in line with StatsSA Tourism Migration Report.
This performance is below the global average of a +4.4% increase in tourist arrivals due to the aftermath of Ebola and the unintended consequences of changes to immigration regulations in the first two quarters of 2015.
Xasa confirmed a gradual recovery is expected from most international markets in 2016 as South Africa ranks as the lead destination in its region and ranks 48th globally, according to the 2015 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum.
Of the overseas visitors arriving in South Africa during January, arrivals from China grew by a remarkable 93%. Added to the Grant Thornton assessment, Germany improved by 22%, UK by 16% and the USA by 11%.
Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom recently visit China to address concerns that might impede growth from the top global source of tourists. Hanekom indicated that despite China's slow-down in economy, there is an expected boom of Chinese tourists expected in South Africa.
In January 2016 the department of home affairs announced SA would implement an Accredited Travel Company programme in China (through the Chinese Approved Destination Status program) to process visa applications on behalf of travellers - this means that Chinese travellers to South Africa no longer need to make in-person applications at visa processing centres.
In addition, Chinese nationals also no longer require transit visas to travel to neighbouring countries.
South Africa has also opened two new visa facilitation centres in Chengdu and Guangzhou, in addition to the centres in Beijing and Shanghai, for travellers who want to go to the centres directly. Five additional centres are expected to be opened at the end of April in Shenyang, Xi’an, Wuhan, Jinan and Hangzhou.
“We are confident that the number of tourists visiting South Africa from China will grow significantly this year. Our discussions with the Chinese travel trade have included measures on how to make the best of the expected boom," says Hanekom.
“The significant growth in arrivals from China is a welcome relief and it truly is an indication that the amendments to visa regulations for the Chinese market are already starting to bear fruit,” says Bac.
But Bac warned that this growth is off a low base recorded during 2015.
“The actual number of Chinese tourists arriving in January 2016 (9 406) is still lower than the number of Chinese tourists recorded in January 2012 and in 2014, so there is still quite a bit of work to be done in order for us to successfully return to previous levels,” she said.
The Grant Thornton Advisory Services team’s calculations reveal that if South Africa had not experienced the negative issue of the visa regulations on the Chinese market in particular, South Africa should have had approximately 2 500 more Chinese tourists in January 2016 than what was actually recorded.
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