Coach charter, tours and shuttle operators continue to face the same problems, making slow progress toward solutions, writes Michelle Colman.

Resolution of problems that beset wheels operators in South Africa moves at a snail’s pace, say stakeholders, who encounter a myriad of issues in their dealings with the travel trade, as well as external factors such as registration and maintenance of roads.

Fanie van Zyl, MD of SA Coach Charters & Bus Rentals, continues to encounter many of the same concerns he has voiced for some time, not least a lack of understanding in certain trade quarters about the coaching sector.

“The tour operating and travel fraternity are still ‘uneducated’ about the types of vehicles, their quality and amenities,” he says. “Many consultants, operators or agents book coaches without intimate knowledge of the vehicle, quality, year model and service history. This is where surprises and embarrassment come along. Many consultants and even directors have never even boarded a coach – hence no questions are asked.”

In addition, some tour operators are not acquainted with the routes, road conditions and time frames of travel when packaging tours. “Indeed, some do a proper dry run but many fail to equate it with comfort – they should review the period of travel with the itinerary to offer a quality programme with enough spare time,” says Van Zyl.

He urges more thorough and enquiring research by operators leasing vehicles.  The touring industry, he says, still places the coach company last on the booking process list, placing all parties under stress to secure top coaches timeously.

A general shortage of coaches adds to the pressure. Van Zyl points out that with the poor exchange rate it’s a challenge to secure new-generation coaches. As a result, there are few new entrants to the market, and no single coach company can provide enough vehicles for any operator on a series of individual bookings without sub-hiring.

To circumvent this, SA Coach Charters & Tours recently introduced the concept of an ‘extended transport desk’ to better service tour operators, travel agents, PCOs and DMCs.  The desk represents a pool of vehicles across a group of associated suppliers.

“We are the experts and professionals, thus we know all the bus and coach companies, their vehicles and drivers. We can select the best coaches and newest models from different suppliers with high standards. We become the operators’ transport desk, so they can focus on marketing their business,” says Van Zyl.

He has a last word on rates, indicating that these are calculated according to certain formulas to ensure sustainable profitability.  Yet, while operators are willing to pay accommodation rates that are up to four times higher per person than the wheels transport rate on a R4.5m (€304 000) coach with a R100m (€6.75m) passenger liability, they continue to push for cheaper vehicle hire.  Trade and travellers seem happy to pay five-star hotel rates, but expect a five-star coach for a two-star price, he says.

For Andrew Iles, MD of Ashtons Tours, Safaris & Shuttles, the condition of provincial roads remains a significant issue for all shuttle, transfer, charter and tour companies. Ashtons is particularly active on road travel to the Kruger National Park area, and specifically cites the highly popular tourist route between Belfast and Hoedspruit as problematic.

“There has been progress, most notably in the current resurfacing and repair of the R36 between Ohrigstad and the Strijdom Tunnel, including the Abel Erasmus Pass. But change happens very slowly and, for the most part, we only see the worst potholes repaired, only for them to be damaged and reopened by heavy trucks and adverse weather conditions.

“Negative client comments in this regard are a regular feature for most companies that traverse such routes and, despite our best efforts, client comfort is compromised, vehicles experience greater wear and tear, and sometimes even company reputations suffer,” he says.

Iles says another thorny issue is the whole process of applying for vehicle transport permits or operating licences.

Recently Tourism Update reported that the newly established but resource-stressed National Public Transport Regulator was failing to process permits timeously, forcing operators to bite their nails in frustration while vehicles remained idle.