By Stella Mapenzauswa
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A weak rand and a government U-turn on restrictive visa rules are helping South Africa's tourism sector to stage a strong recovery after a shaky 2015.
But a ban affecting the country's international sports teams over their failure to field more black players risks setting the industry -- an increasingly vital cog in a struggling economy -- back again.
Foreign visitors dropped nearly 7 percent last year, partly due to new visa regulations requiring children to travel with full birth certificates and visitors from some countries, including China, to appear in person at a South African embassy, often requiring lengthy journeys.
The government relaxed those rules in October, and Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said on Tuesday that the industry, which was also hit by health fears sparked by an Ebola outbreak in West Africa last spring, was on the mend.
"More than ever before, governments around the world are looking to tourism for economic growth. South Africa is no different," Hanekom told parliament.
"Tourism is recovering rapidly from last year's decline (and) 2016 promises to be a year of strong growth."
Over 1 million tourists arrived in South Africa in January, up 15 percent year on year, and the increase was 18 percent in February. Arrivals from China, where authorities now let agencies apply for visas on behalf of travelers, doubled over the period.
In 2013, tourism's direct contribution to South Africa's now ailing economy was 104 billion rand, about 2.9 percent of GDP.
The sector now accounts for more than 9 percent of economic output and supports over 1.5 million jobs, and the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates it will contribute more than 380 billion rand this year.
A 25 percent fall in the rand in 2015 has also helped this process.
South Africa's tourism capital Cape Town is the lowest-priced of 32 long haul destinations surveyed in this year's UK Post Office Holiday Money Report, and the third cheapest overall for British tourists.
A SPORTING CHANCE?
The favorable finances helped lure hundreds of cricket fans to the city at the end of last year to support the touring English team.
"This 'Barmy Army' highlighted how much sport events and tournaments can boost tourism in the short term," Cape Town tourism CEO Enver Duminy said.
"This fan 'invasion' coincided with the drop in the exchange rate, so it was a surprise benefit to those traveling at the time."
But in a country that often punches above its weight on the international sporting stage, administrators are worried that politics may compromise their ability to stage major events in future.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said on April 25 that, because their teams remain largely white more than two decades after the end of apartheid, the country's cricket, rugby, athletics and netball federations would not be allowed to bid for international tournaments.
The ban could scupper South Africa's hopes of hosting the 2023 rugby World Cup.
The Tourism Business Council says that, while redressing imbalances created by decades of segregation under apartheid is important, this should not be at the expense of an economy seen growing just 0.9 percent this year.
"Whilst we ...respect the minister’s prerogative to take such a stance, we remain concerned about the unintended consequences this may have on inbound tourism to South Africa and the broader economy," CEO Mmatsatsi Ramawela said in a statement.
"The travel and tourism sector is just beginning to show signs of recovery following a difficult two-year period."
($1 = 15.0220 rand)
(editing by John Stonestreet)