Tourism industry calls on president’s ‘red tape team’ to save it from being strangled

South Africa’s tourism industry has called on President Cyril Ramphosa and his “red tape team” to urgently intervene to unblock the “bureaucratic debacle” that is strangling the industry.

SA Tourism Services Association (Satsa) CEO David Frost on Wednesday laid the blame for this squarely on the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR).

Frost said the NPTR is preventing tour operators from renewing or obtaining new tourist vehicle operating licences.

He said the licensing paralysis is affecting hundreds of tour operator vehicles and causing severe economic and reputational damage to the tourism industry apart from inhibiting the growth and job creation of small, medium, and large enterprises, and resulting in business closures and job losses.

“Many of the close to 1 000 applications that have stalled at the NPTR are from SMEs and black-owned businesses.

“In turn, it has an increasingly negative impact on the sustainability of tourism in South Africa and the wider South African economy,” he said.

Frost said Satsa has tried to address this matter without success for over five years directly with various ministers of transport and tourism and also with their incumbent director-generals.

He said Satsa tried in vain through the Tourism Business Council (TBC) to reach out to Sipho Nkosi, who heads the team in the president’s office to cut red tape across government, and raise this issue.

Red tape team ‘mired in its own red tape’ …

But Frost said the feedback it received through entities such Business Leadership SA and Business Unity SA is that this initiative itself is now “mired in its own red tape and there are squabbles about who is going to pay Mr Nkosi and how he is going to be remunerated”.

“The process itself of accessing the red tape task team is a pain at best and we just haven’t been able to make any inroads,” he said.

Onne Vegter, chair of the Satsa Board Transport Committee and a specialist tour operator, said taking a matter to court will always be a last resort because it’s costly and takes a lot of time.

Vegter said it is also very unlikely Satsa will get this matter on the urgent court roll, which means it could be months or even years before it gets a decision from the court.

‘Very easy’ solutions

He said Satsa is hoping that through the president’s red tape team it can find the solutions – which it says are very easy.

Satsa, which represents 1 400 companies and is the country’s leading inbound tourism organisation, is calling for:

  • The president’s red tape team to step in and declare an immediate amnesty or moratorium on all applications to the NPTR for accreditation until the current impasse has been resolved.

  • The immediate establishment of a task team to relook at the regulation of tourism vehicles and to implement a lasting solution.

  • The president’s red tape team to ensure that the new interim NPTR board follows the law in respect of processing and timing of licencing.

Oupa Pilane, deputy chair of Satsa and a tour operator and leading tourism practitioner from Mpumalanga, said they are saddened by government’s inefficiency.

“It’s like every morning there is some government official waking up and saying how can we make it difficult for the tourism sector to operate,” said Pilane.

“It’s simply economic sabotage. If there is a caring government, this should not be happening.

“This is a systematic problem and is a crisis that requires urgent intervention by our government. This problem has got nothing to do with Covid-19. It’s a problem we have been facing for five years.”

The Department of Transport was emailed a list of questions about the grievances listed by Satsa but has not yet responded. This article will be updated once a response is received.

Satsa, among other things, claims the NPTR:

  • Is acting unlawfully in terms of how it applies the National Land Transport Act 5 of 2009 and its regulations to tour vehicle operators.

  • Has not had a board for most of the past two-and-a-half years, resulting in zero operating licences being processed since December 2019.

  • Routinely fails to meet turnaround time deadlines specified in the act and its regulations for the accreditation of operators and the issuing of new licences and licence renewals.

  • Insists on board hearings and gazette advertising for all applications, even from accredited operators, despite this not being required by the act and its regulations.

  • Is using Section 62 (1) g as a broad clause to justify additional requirements that have nothing to do with the safety of the operator or passengers, including irrelevant requirements such as route descriptions, B-BBEE certification, business plans, historical invoices, reference letters, letters of motivation and so on, which have no legal or logical basis and is indicative of regulatory overreach.

  • Has unlawfully refused to process applications from accredited operators for additional vehicles, instead insisting that they submit a new application as if they were not accredited.

Satsa further claimed Director-General of Tourism Victor Tharage and Acting Director-General of Transport Chris Hlabisa promised in a meeting with the TBC and Satsa on 20 December 2018 to void the issuing of route descriptions/radius of operation for tour operators but this has not happened.

Frost said the problems at the NPTR have resulted in hundreds of new and existing tour operators not being able to work or being forced to do so illegally.

“Tour operators with vehicles full of tourists are regularly pulled over by police and traffic officials, who fine them or impound their vehicles, sometimes leaving tourists stranded on the side of the road.

“It’s quite simply an untenable situation and certainly not the message we want to send as a potential and competitive tourism destination,” he said.

A Satsa industry survey conducted in April, to which 131 tourism transport operators responded, revealed that:

  • 913 applications to the NPTR are outstanding;

  • at least 391 vehicles cannot be used legally;

  • 60 vehicles have been sold and operators have held back on buying 175 new vehicles due to the challenges with NPTR, resulting in a minimum R70 million impact on the economy;

  • Four businesses closed their doors because of the impasse at the NPTR; and

  • A total of 167 incidents were reported of traffic officials stopping and harassing drivers in front of tourists, with 49 fines issued and 21 of these vehicles impounded.