South Africa: Tour operators sound the alert as bureaucracy chokes recovery

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Thursday, 30 June 2022 06:00

Streetlights illuminate the central business district in Cape Town
Cape Town is a big tourism draw for South Africa. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

South Africa risks shooting itself in the foot as regulatory failings for the licensing of tour operators cripple the industry’s capacity to respond to a rebound in international tourism.

Hundreds of tour operators are unable to work legally due to the failure of the licensing authority, the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR), to function, the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA) said in a briefing last week.

South Africa’s tourism sector, which generates 10% of GDP, was hard hit by Covid-19. The sector is operating at 30% to 40% capacity in comparison with 2019,  the country’s Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) said in March. The tourism sector lost 470,000 jobs in the pandemic with only 37% of employees receiving 100% of their salaries this February, the PMG said.

Systemic failure of the NPTR’s licence system began over five years ago, and for most of the last two and a half years, the NPTR has operated without a board. That means no operating licences have been processed since December 2019, SATSA says. “Government is yet to resolve this bureaucratic disaster.”

The industry faces “a crisis which requires urgent intervention” by government, said deputy SATSA chair Oupa Pilane, who is a tour operator in Mpumalanga.

  • Hundreds of vehicles are currently stranded without operating licences, and operators who work without licenses risk having their vehicles pulled over and impounded, he said.
  • South Africa’s National Land Transport Act 5 of 2009 specifies a turnaround time of 60 days for accreditation and new licences, and same-day or next-day renewals for additions for accredited operators.
  • These deadlines are ignored, and all applications from accredited operators are treated the same as new applications, SATSA says.
  • That means there is no point being accredited as it makes no difference to the process, it adds.
  • Current requirements for gazette advertising and board meetings to approve applications should be dropped, SATSA argues.
  • All that is needed is to check that the vehicle has a registration, licence, and is proved to be roadworthy – the only requirements stipulated by law.

Stranded costs

Onne Vegter, chair of the SATSA board transport committee who also operates the Wild Wings Safaris tour operator, says he bought new vehicles three years ago but has been unable to use them, for want of operating licenses from the NPTR. The license applications were complete and correct, he says. Each stranded vehicle costs at least R8,000 ($495) per month in repayments, maintenance and insurance, he says.

The NPTR now has an interim board, but Pilane says it will take months to get up to speed and to begin to address the backlog. The early indications are that the new board is “perpetuating the failures” of the old one. SATSA is calling for an 18-month moratorium on the need for operating licences and accreditation to get vehicles back on the road, while implementing longer-term solutions.

  • The proposed solutions include creating capacity in the NPTR to process applications, and appointing people with tourism transport experience to the NPTR board and secretariat.

Bottom line

South Africa’s economy is too highly geared to tourism recovery to allow the bureaucratic impasse to continue.

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