South Africa has honed in on the recent BRICS summit as a means of attracting more international tourists, something that Chinese state media has also been keen to emphasize. The BRICS organization consists of the five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Among the BRICS partners, China is by far the most important global tourism source market, and South African officials had hoped that the recent summit would serve as an opportunity to showcase South Africa’s rich tourism offerings to Chinese citizens. Officials followed up the BRICS summit with the release of a new visa policy for Chinese citizens that will ideally make it easier for Chinese tourists to travel to South Africa. Such a policy couldn’t come at a better time, after 2017 turned out to be an abysmal year for Chinese tourism to South Africa.

After 2017 saw a big drop in Chinese tourism, South Africa is hoping that its ties to China through the BRICS organization can help get growth back on track

South Africa’s new visa policy for Chinese citizens mirrors that of Belarus. A Chinese citizen will be able to enter the country visa-free if they already hold a U.S. visa, Schengen visa, or an Australian visa. The policy will likely appeal most to those Chinese citizens who already hold multi-year visas for Schengen countries or the United States. Making it easier for Chinese tourists, especially ones with higher incomes, should be a top priority for South Africa and may be more helpful for its tourism industry compared to a catch-all visa-exempt policy, in that it reduces the number of low-spending tourists that may strain travel infrastructure.

The number of Chinese arrivals to South Africa has never been huge, but there’s still potential for the country to become a niche destination for wealthier Chinese tourists. In 2015, South Africa attracted just 84,691 Chinese tourists. In 2016 this figure grew by 38 percent to reach 116,946. Yet, 2017 was not exactly the landmark year that 2016 was, with arrivals declining by 17 percent to sink to 97,069.

2017 saw a decline of 17 percent in the number of Chinese arrivals to South Africa

Part of this can be attributed to a less favorable exchange rate. In early 2016, the yuan to rand exchange rate peaked at 2.5 rand to the yuan. It has since fallen and sits at 1.95. This is undeniably a big factor, but of course, it can’t account for the entire drop 2017 saw.

Given that the number of Chinese tourists in South Africa is still relatively small, the rapid growth of 2016 may have simply been an anomaly and 2017’s figures may better reflect demand for travel to South Africa in the Chinese market. Even if numbers in 2017 were down compared to 2016, it still represented growth of almost 15 percent over 2015. All in all, if the overall trend continues, it’s still quite good for the country’s tourism industry, even if 2017 was disappointing.

Most encouraging is that we’re already seeing a modest bump in Chinese arrivals this year. The latest numbers for arrival figures are from May, with Chinese arrivals up by 4 percent increasing to 6,829. It’s modest growth, but arguably steady growth makes it easier for tourism stakeholders to adjust to this new market.

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