Tour guides – still reeling from Covid-19 – can't get government to renew their licences

Business Insider SA
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • South African tour operators are working hard to recover from the pandemic-induced downturn.
  • But "systemic failures" within the National Public Transport Regulator are making it difficult.
  • The regulator is responsible for issuing tourism transport licences, required by all vehicles carrying tourists on South Africa's roads.
  • Problems within the regulator predate Covid-19, but for the past two-and-a-half years, there's been no board to sort out issues, with an interim board only recently being appointed.
  • This has sidelined new businesses entering the tourism market, with most choosing to operate illegally and accept the consequences.
  • And even those with existing, although expired, licences are being harassed by law enforcement, with vehicles impounded and tourists stranded on the side of the road.
  • A call for an urgent moratorium on tour operator licences while the regulator gets its house in order has been issued by the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association.
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South African tour operators are trying to recover from the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic but are struggling to get tourism transport licences because of government's ongoing systemic failures.

South Africa's tourism industry has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. The sector shed almost 500,000 jobs, and its GDP contribution dwindled due to prolonged travel restrictions, many focused solely on South Africa because of the country's scientific prowess in discovering new coronavirus variants.

Since South Africa exited lockdown early this year, and with the last remaining Covid-19 restrictions likely to be repealed in the coming days, the tourism sector has begun its recovery. More international visitors are returning to South Africa, and hotel occupancy rates are up, although far behind levels last seen before the pandemic.

The road to full recovery is long, and it's being made even steeper by government red tape shackling South Africa's tour operators. Serious operational failures within the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR), which predate the pandemic but have been made even worse over the past two years, have made it almost impossible to obtain dedicated licences for tourist vehicles.

Vehicles transporting tourists on South Africa's roads need to have operating licences granted by the NPTR, which falls within the department of transport. For the past two-and-a-half years, the NPTR board has been vacant, adding to the pre-existing backlog of applications and halting the ability for new tour guides to operate legally.

Although an interim NPTR board has been appointed, South Africa's tour operators still face an uphill battle and long wait times in search of new operating licences.

The extent of this impasse was recently revealed by the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), which is calling for an urgent moratorium on tour operator licences while the NPTR gets its house in order.

A survey conducted by SATSA among 131 local tourism operators found that 913 applications were still outstanding, with some still waiting after three years. These applications include operating licence renewals, amendments, new applications, and transfers.

The results of the survey, revealed by SATSA on Wednesday, show that at least 391 vehicles can't be operated legally. Around 60 vehicles have been sold, and tour operators have held back on buying some 175 new vehicles due to the NPTR's challenges. Four businesses have shut down due to these same challenges.

SATSA estimates that this has had a R70 million impact on South Africa's already embattled economy.

"When looking at these inefficiencies, it's like every morning there is some government official waking up and saying, 'how can we make it difficult for the tourism sector'," said Oupa Pilane, Deputy Chair of SATSA.

"These new, young, black tour operators that are coming into the sector cannot operate because they are being stopped, they are being fined, their cars are being impounded, at some point, tourists are being told to get out of the cars in the middle of nowhere. So, clearly, if there was a caring government, this shouldn't be happening."

Although regulations allow operators to continue operating with expired licences until the NPTR renews permits – with almost all vehicles currently on the road driving with expired licences – this message hasn't filtered down to law enforcement.

"The cops on the road seem to be unaware of regulation 25, and we get reports, almost every day, of operators getting pulled over, harassed, fined, or even having their vehicles impounded, which is totally unlawful," explained Onne Vegter, Chair of SATSA Board Transport Committee.

"But how do you argue with a cop on a power trip on the side of the road? This is harassment of tour operators, and it has to stop."

Vegter added that although higher-ups in law enforcement eventually admit that they've been wrong, with few cases making it to court, the reputational damage already done to the tour operator is impossible to undo.

For newcomers to the tourism sector, like those mentioned by Pilane, there are two choices: stop operating entirely or operate illegally and accept the associated risks. Many have opted for the latter.

In addition to calling for a moratorium on tour operator licences – like the one granted by the department for drivers' licences – SATSA is also urging the Presidency's recently formed "red tape" team to implement swift solutions at the NPTR.

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