South Africa introduces digital nomad visa – will it revive struggling tourism sector?

South Africa’s captivating coastlines and unique ecosystems attract millions of travelers each year. Tourism brings about $10 billion (€8.2 billion) to the economy and employs millions of people across the country.

However, the South African tourism industry suffered a major setback in 2020 when COVID-19 hit the country’s shores. Before the pandemic, international visitors to South Africa were spending more than $30,000 (€27,000) per minute criss-crossing the country. A figure that seems insurmountable in today’s South Africa, as tourism businesses look for new ways to make up for lost time.

How can South Africa revive its tourism industry?

Industry leaders attending the World Travel Market Africa event in Cape Town, South Africa are convinced that the antidote to the struggling tourism sector is the acceleration of digital nomad visas. This ambitious visa regime would allow remote international workers to stay in the country for more than 90 days and up to a year in total.

“There are a number of destinations that have done this such as Dubai, Greece and the Maldives. These destinations have seen overall growth in tourist numbers,” says Velma Corcoran, Country Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at Airbnb.

“What we have done as Airbnb is work closely with the Italian Ministry of Tourism to support them in lobbying for a digital nomad visa.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa describes the remote work visa as a tool for economic growth. However, while this is being considered by the government, South Africa faces the twin threats of security concerns and skills shortages.

Crime rate in South Africa: a persistent problem

Security is South Africa’s Achilles’ heel, and crime affects both domestic and international visitors. In the last three months of 2021, murder rates increased by 8.9% and hijackings by 13.8%.

“We have to face another major challenge, a challenge that was well articulated to me by the President of China who told me that many Chinese tourists want to come to South Africa and Africa, but the problem that holding them back is the crime,” says President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Unless the government acts to tighten security measures in the country, it is likely that some tourists will continue to be put off by crime statistics.

A shortage of skilled workers

The pandemic has also left a huge void in the skilled labor market in South Africa. And while the tourism industry is clamoring for more international and domestic travelers, the reality is that the country may struggle to meet their demands.

The government’s job retention support program eases the burden, says Monika Luel, marketing director at WESGRO, but there is still much to be done to support the industry. She believes digital technology will play an important role in bridging the gap.

“I think the government payroll relief program has been a small support. I don’t think it’s enough, because tourism and the hospitality industry is a big service industry,” says Luel.

“For WESGRO, digital communications have gone on steroids because the only way to reach the consumer is through digital platforms.”

Will the introduction of a digital nomad visa help tourism?

There is no doubt that the introduction of a digital nomad visa would provide a welcome boost to the tourism industry.

If South Africa gives the visa the green light, it will become the first mainland African country to offer visitors a long-term distance visa, joining the African island nations of Mauritius, Seychelles and Cape Verde.

Although the finer details are yet to be confirmed, it is likely that there will be a minimum wage requirement for tourists applying for the visa, as well as rules regarding health insurance, proof of work and accommodation.

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