Weekend retreats in South Africa visa free


Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg, is a popular site for shopping, dining and entertainment. FILE PHOTO | POOL

“It feels very special to arrive in Johannesburg and walk to the Passport Control section for visa-exempt travellers,” says Jane Omondo, a traveller from Kenya, on arrival at Oliver Tambo International Airport.

She was in South Africa on a two-week trip in February to attend a relative’s wedding in Cape Town and visiting with family in Johannesburg.

Things have changed dramatically for Kenyan travellers to South Africa since the visa waiver for visitors staying in the country for not more than 90 days, took effect in January this year.

When Ms Omondo last travelled to South Africa three years ago, she underwent the laborious process of applying for a visa: booking an appointment for biometrics and submitting a heap of documents including bank statements and hotel bookings.

“I would not be here today if I had to apply for a visa,” admits Joanne Mwangi-Yelbert, Chairperson of Kenya Tourism Board.

“Because there was no visa issue, I was able to travel on short notice,” says Ms Mwangi-Yelbert whom I met at Meetings Africa, a conference and exhibition of the continent’s business events players in Johannesburg.

“It is time that we as Africans start working together to promote our tourism products. This has a big impact on tourism flow,” she says.

The South Africa deputy minister for Tourism Amos Mahlalela notes that the decision to lift the visa rule means there is now ease of trade and movement of people within the two countries.

“Doing away with the visa regime makes it easy for people from the two countries to travel and share the huge opportunities in trade and tourism among ourselves,” Mr Mahlalela tells the BDLife during the conference.

“We want the visa waiver to succeed so that we can see how best to explore other avenues in the continent. We can share and trade between ourselves and overcome some of the challenges that beset our countries.”

South Africa is facing some immense social and economic challenges at the moment.

The solar panels on the roofs of homes in the suburbs of Johannesburg or the roaring of generators in buildings in the city are evidence that the energy crisis that has forced several hours of load shedding per day is taking its toll.

But the endurance of the people is refreshing, like a man dressed as a clown directing vehicles at an intersection in Johannesburg’s Sandton suburb during the rush hour when the robots, as traffic lights are unofficially called in South Africa, are off due to the load shedding.


Mandela House Museum in Soweto, Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela lived here from 1946 to 1962 and it is now a National Heritage Site. FILE PHOTO | POOL

“The protracted liberation struggle created patience, resilience, and confidence that nothing can overcome us as a nation when we work together,” says Mr Mahlalela who is optimistic that by the end of the year, the load shedding should either be in Stage One or Two (The power is rationed in stages from 1 to 8, the higher the stage the higher the number of hours without power in a day).

Owen Wesonga, a cameraman from Kenya who was in Johannesburg covering the Showbiz Entertainment Africa Conference, did not see the funny side of the power cuts after he was stuck alone in a hotel elevator for a few minutes following an abrupt power outage.

But he enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of Soweto township: the iconic calabash-shaped FNB Stadium venue of the 2010 World Cup final, and the homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu that are now museums.

The Gauteng Tourism Authority (GTA) is leveraging on townships, like Soweto with its history as a bastion of liberation and transformation, to reignite the visitor economy, post- Covid-19.

Ms Mwangi-Yelbert says there is already anecdotal evidence of Kenyans hopping on a plane to enjoy a weekend down south.

“I am sure there will be greater numbers of Kenyan visitors because, at a social level, I now hear people talking about coming for a weekend to South Africa. It is suddenly a thing!” she says.

In just one weekend, Johannesburg was hosting a range of events coordinated by GTA; business and entertainment conferences, music concerts and Africa’s biggest soccer derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in Soweto.

“The new tourist does not want to go through a curated experience. They arrive without a plan; all they know is that “I am arriving, going into this hotel and thereafter I will decide,” says Ms Mwangi-Yelbert.

After the slump in tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a huge change in the expectations of tourists.

“Everyone is saying I want to live my life now; I don’t want to be locked down ever again. Despite economic challenges, people want to travel and we need to take advantage of this upsurge in travel,” adds Ms Mwangi-Yelbert.

“Allowing people to do their own thing but within the safety confines of guided tours and creating opportunities for them to spend money is critical because the only way that you benefit from tourists is when they spend money everywhere they go.”

Mr Mahlalela says for him the best memories of many trips to Kenya are visiting villages in the countryside and experiencing the matatu culture in the urban centres.

“I realised that taxis (matatus) are the same everywhere,” he says with a burst of loud laughter.

Africans now want to see the rest of Africa and according to Ms Mwangi-Yelbert, technology provides the tools to share experiences.

“I will be telling Chat GPT that Africa is the place to be, Africa is safe, Africa is clean, peaceful and the people are lovely. When we all say those things, the next time someone is looking for information on Africa, that is what they will find. We don’t need anybody to help us, we have the tools to do it ourselves.”

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