Tour operator vehicle licensing issue damaging tourism, the economy

DoT to DoT: Department of Tourism passes the buck to the Department of Transport.
The matter has been on the Department of Tourism’s agenda for five years, with the Department of Transport seemingly not fazed by the impact of the transport regulator’s actions and/or inaction. Image: Shutterstock

The Department of Tourism has passed the buck to the Department of Transport for the problems being experienced by tour operators in renewing or obtaining new tourist vehicle operating licences from the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR).

While Seapei Lebele, acting chief director of communications at the Department of Tourism, acknowledged that the issue is a serious challenge that is negatively impacting the tourism sector – she denied that the sector has not received assistance from the department.

Read: Government ignores tourism industry’s plea for assistance

“The department has had a number of engagements with the Department of Transport, and with the sector broadly, on challenges with the NPTR,” she said.

“The department routinely engages departments, whose mandates impact tourism, on various matters with the ultimate objective of supporting the growth of the sector and its contribution to the economy.”

Moneyweb emailed a list of questions to the Department of Transport on 22 June but has not yet received a response.

Operators ‘prevented’ from getting licences

The SA Tourism Services Association (Satsa) claimed last month the NPTR is preventing tour operators from renewing or obtaining new tourist vehicle operating licences.

It said this is negatively impacting hundreds of tour operator vehicles and causing severe economic and reputational damage to the tourism industry, besides inhibiting growth and job creation within small, medium and large enterprises (SMMEs).

Satsa further claimed there was a promise to void the issuing of route descriptions/radius of operation for tour operators because it is inappropriate for tour operator vehicles but to date this had not happened.

It said this promise was repeated and captured in the minutes of a meeting between the departments of tourism and transport, the NPTR and Satsa in September 2017.

And that it was again agreed upon in December 2018 during a meeting between Director-General of Tourism Victor Tharage, Acting Director-General of Transport Chris Hlabisa, the Tourism Business Council and Satsa.

However Lebele said the meetings referred to by Satsa contradict the assertion that “nothing has been done”.

They are an example of the Department of Tourism’s intervention to facilitate a direct engagement between Satsa and the Department of Transport, she said.

Where does the buck stop?

Lebele stressed that as much as the Department of Tourism facilitates the engagements to ensure that concerns are discussed in detail and perspectives understood from both sides, the mandate for tour operating licensing “lies outside the Department of Tourism”.

“The Department of Tourism cannot in effect ‘implement’ another department’s mandate though we will – and have consistently – helped the relevant department understand the tourism perspective as appropriate and motivate for tourism needs to be accommodated in their policies and processes,” she said.

Lebele said both short- and long-term solutions have been identified during the engagements with the Department of Transport.

“One of the long-term issues [is] the amendment of some aspects of the legislation, which the Department of Transport is best placed to elaborate on,” she said.

Satsa last month also claimed Tourism Director-General Tharage has done nothing for five years to try and resolve the issues tour operators have with the regulator.

Lebele stressed that Tharage has maintained focus on the NPTR challenges and has utilised various approaches to address it, including the National Tourism Stakeholder Forum (NTSF), which he – Tharage – personally chairs.

Ten engagements

She added that since the emergence of challenges with the implementation of the NPTR, the Department of Tourism has intervened and provided a list of 10 engagements it had between November 2018 and September 2020 in an attempt to resolve the issues.

These included:

  • 5 December 2018: A meeting between the departments of tourism and transport at which the deputy ministers of both departments and tourism officials received a briefing and discussion took place on challenges with the NPTR process, including the processing backlog.

  •  10 December 2018: A follow-up meeting between the departments of tourism and transport at which the deputy minister of transport, and NPTR and tourism officials were part of detailed discussion on the processing of the backlog, conducted a working site visit to the NPTR offices and had engagements with the whole NPTR team on tourism concerns.

  • 10 December 2019: The director-general of Tourism sent a letter to the director-general of Transport proposing an amnesty for tourist licensing and requesting an update on the appointment of the new NPTR.

The Department of Tourism said the outcome of these interventions included:

  • Acknowledgement by the Department of Transport of the existence of challenges.

  • An improved common understanding of the needs of the tourism sector because of the NPTR board engagements.

  • The facilitation of assistance for individual tour operator companies that referred their matters after attending the NPTR board sessions in various provinces.

  • The Department of Transport on 20 December 2020 gazetting an extension until 31 August 2021 to the validity period of tourist operating licences and accreditation certificates that had expired during the period 26 March 2020 to 28 February 2021.

‘Inconceivable’

Satsa deputy chair Oupa Pilane said on Tuesday the Department of Tourism, as Satsa’s line department, should understand the seriousness and importance of fixing this problem more than any other department.

“It is inconceivable the matter has been on the department’s agenda for five years and it’s still not resolved.

“We expect the Department of Tourism to be at the centre of finding solutions to this problem and not just facilitate meetings, [which] is something we can do ourselves,” said Pilane.

“As part of government, they cannot absolve themselves from the systematic failures of their sister department, however frustrating the situation might be,” he said.

Pilane stressed that the problems being experienced by tour operators with the NPTR are not simply a concern for Satsa and its members but directly impact the entire tourism sector, most significantly young and emerging tourism entrepreneurs who are doing their utmost to survive and create jobs.

“More than this, it undermines the entire industry’s ability to represent the best our country has to offer tourists.

“As Satsa, we cannot rest until this matter is resolved,” he said.

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