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Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

It’s a classic case of “think of the children” regulatory insanity. Government has imposed a new requirement for tourists: if you travel with children, produce an unabridged birth certificate, as well as a slew of sworn statements and permission slips, or you won’t be allowed onto the aeroplane.

Just as Brazil stole our World Cup limelight on the international stage, the Department of Home Affairs stepped in to meddle with an otherwise well-running and largely private tourism industry.

It has issued regulations, coming into effect on 1 October 2014, that require children travelling to and from South Africa to have their own passports (instead of being listed in their parents’ travel documents), as well as unabridged birth certificates. If the child is travelling with only one parent or guardian, an affidavit granting consent of the other parent is required, or a court order proving sole guardianship must be produced.

Imagine the mess. How many parents are absent as migrant workers? How many parents are divorced, with joint custody, but one parent has lost touch with the other? How many divorced people have a death certificate of their deceased ex-spouses? Do tourists really have to go to court in their country, just to get a slip of paper for South African customs?

If a woman left a man because he abused her or her child, but the court awarded joint custody because it was never proven, is she really expected to beg him for permission every time she wants to travel abroad with her child? How awful can you make life for tourists?

How many parents living in, say, Sweden, can readily access the government bureaucracy of a far-off country like Cambodia where their children might have been born? And if they can, will they bother, just for a holiday?

How many countries struggle to supply reliable passports, let alone birth certificates? How many of them are in burgeoning markets like Asia and Africa, upon which our tourism industry increasingly relies?

How many countries can even produce an unabridged birth certificate? South Africa itself has only issued them since last year. If you think you have a birth certificate for your child, rotten luck. It’s abridged. You get to queue and wait for weeks or months all over again. I do hope your October school holiday flight tickets are refundable.

South Africa is a go-to country for terrorists and criminals to obtain fake documents. This is why the UK instituted a visa requirement for South Africans in 2008. The Department of Home Affairs has improved in recent years, but still, it might want to check that its existing procedures run properly before imposing elaborate and unusual new rules upon international travellers.

Of course, there’s a good reason for all this madness. Every cockamamie idea a politician dreams up while he’s on the can needs a good reason. That’s the first rule of political PR. This time it’s child trafficking. And kudos to the strategist, as reasons go it certainly sounds impressive.

However, for this reason, South Africa will require those among its nine million tourists who travel with children to produce evidence of the legitimacy of their wards, complete with permission slips from absent or drunken spouses. According to tourism

Far be it from me to make light of child trafficking. I entirely agree that child prostitutes and the pimps who move them ought to have proper papers. Kidding. It is, of course, a terrible crime that government should take seriously. Nobody would argue otherwise. But knowing that a problem exists is not the same as devising an appropriate solution. Conversely, not every conceivable solution is appropriate for a given problem.

Child trafficking has an elaborate definition, written with the pathological prolixity only a bureaucrat can muster.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Convention against Transnational Organised Crime’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (UN ODC CTOC PPSPT), trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Oh, and the person has to be a child, which I assume means someone under 18, because I seriously cannot be bothered to look up the relevant UN protocols.

Child trafficking is one of those crimes that stirs deep emotions. One is inclined to be protective, outraged, and angry, and the emotion is entirely justified. That is why the clamour for justice tend to be loud and rash. As is usual with cases of moral outrage, the propaganda “to raise awareness” appears to exceed reality by several orders of magnitude.

Africa Check, a non-profit and non-partisan fact verification outfit, conducted a detailed analysis last year of the evidence for media claims that 30,000 children per year were transported against their will into servitude in South Africa.

They found that the problem is not well-understood, which suggests policy-makers had not done much homework. In fact, one of the reasons the UK cited for the visa requirement was that South African officials at the Department of Home Affairs had supplied passports to human traffickers.

Africa Check concluded that the scale of child trafficking is exaggerated and unsubstantiated. Activists and the media confuse child prostitution with trafficking, or conflate the two. They whipped up fears around the World Cup of tens of thousands of trafficking victims, but there was no noticeable increase at all. They mindlessly repeat unsourced statistics.

Only a very small number of cases could be substantiated by evidence, according to the analysis. Of those, many appear to have taken place entirely within South Africa, without involving any international air travel.

It is true that the number of documented cases might rise if all children at international borders are better documented. But trafficking would still be a very specific and limited problem, for which a sledgehammer approach is inappropriate.

Good police work and alert customs staff would be more effective, and far less intrusive and costly, than blanket requirements for everyone to carry papers. Moreover, published legal opinion suggests that existing law, if properly wielded, would be adequate for preventing and prosecuting trafficking, since the process involves any number of separate crimes, like abduction, assault, extortion, and fraud.

Face it, if you’re going to go to the trouble of selling children into sexual slavery or sweatshop labour, you’ll probably figure out how to get around airport customs officers. You could come in by land through a hole in the fence. You could come in by sea to one of our many unguarded ports. You could forge the documents.

The latter should be easy, because birth certificates, unlike passports, are not generally designed and issued as travel documents. Therefore, they are not issued with the same security features, nor in international diplomatic languages, like English and French. To solve this problem, they will have to be accompanied by a sworn translation. Now, who at our airports will question a “sworn translation” of a document printed in Russian, Chinese or Thai?

Remember our hypothetical cruising mother and daughter? Will they take the daughter away and prosecute the mother for trafficking? They should, if they think their precious sworn and certified documents mean anything.

So, we’ll make international travel more difficult, and solve no problem whatsoever. It is sheer lunacy.

Negative growth. Inflation above 6%. Unemployment stubbornly stuck at the 25% mark. The mining sector shrank, manufacturers produced less, and agriculture is in crisis. To our domestic troubles, add turbulent world politics and a depressed global economy, and you have the makings of lean years ahead.

The last thing South Africa needs is for government to regulate another sector into the ground. The expensive misinvestment of the 2010 FIFA World Cup did raise South Africa’s international visibility. It has been a booming destination. Minister Derek Hanekom said tourism would be an economic rescue operation in light of the contraction in mining and manufacturing. Perhaps he should have consulted his counterpart at Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, first. And don’t think the tourists won’t be scared away. The UK media is already on the case.

It’s all a bit surreal. Traffickers treat children like property, and government’s response is to treat children like stolen goods.

Will these regulations work? Sure they will. Nobody who travels with children will bother with the paperwork. There are plenty great tourist destinations vying for South Africa’s market.

That means any child going through security at the airport can be considered a victim of trafficking, and whoever is travelling with them can be summarily arrested and sent off for some good old-fashioned prison-style correction.

Problem solved. And it only cost us a large chunk of a R70 billion tourism industry. Well, tourism is for rich people anyway, so good riddance. We should learn thrive on the real backbone of South Africa’s economy: mining. DM

Disclosure: Though I have no interests in the tourism business, a brother of mine runs an inbound tour operator, Wild Wings Safaris. I share his view: “We really don’t need additional barriers to travel to SA, and this is a huge barrier.”

PS. As many readers will know, I have recently taken considerable time off because of some rocky months of ill health. Although I’ll be taking it easy for a while yet, it’s great to be back. I am immensely grateful for the support, patience and assistance I received from readers. I work for you.


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