Recent reports that so-called ‘wheels operators’, or tour operators with their own vehicles, are experiencing problems on the roads comes as no surprise. Delays with accreditation and new operating licences are causing operators to face fines and impounding of vehicles by traffic officials, in spite of having been told that a receipt as proof of application should be acceptable as an interim measure. And it's only going to get worse, unless major changes are made to the new NPTR process and regulations.
This is exactly what I had feared would happen when I saw the draft NPTR proposals. Years of discussions and planning and negotiation to try and get a better, more streamlined, easier system in place to replace the old Operating Licence Boards, and now it appears we have ended up with a process that is even worse than we had before. Among a raft of petty new regulations, the NPTR wants to conduct a physical, on-premise inspection to accredit every single wheels operator. And the accreditation will need be renewed every five years!
A process destined to create delays
The old provincial Operating Licence Boards experienced major delays even though they had only paperwork to process, and had offices in every province. If they were unable to cope with all the applications for operating licences, how do we expect one national office to cope with all these accreditations, which involve physical inspections by an official from the NPTR, as well as a truckload of paperwork (some of it completely irrelevant, like driver health records). Did the good people who came up with this not realise there would be major delays, resulting in exactly the kind of problems being experienced now, with uninformed and over-zealous traffic officials impounding vehicles and fining operators? It seems to me that this whole process has not been adequately thought through, and objections or suggestions from the trade appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Tour operators and wheels operators are such a key part of the national economy and such important drivers of tourism growth and job creation, it would seem obvious that government should offer every possible assistance to make it easier, not harder, for tour operators to conduct business. In other African countries where tourism is the lifeblood, tourist vehicles are seldom pulled over or harassed by traffic officials. They are waved through at road blocks.
Not so in South Africa. Here we appear to have the opposite approach, and it is shameful. Our traffic officials harass and impound tourist vehicles, extract bribes from operators and from overseas tourists in rental cars, often pocketing obscene amounts in cash spot fines for imaginary offences. Provincial and municipal traffic departments appear unable to root out corruption in their own ranks but they are happy to fine and impound tourist vehicles and wheels operators for offences that are not the operator's fault, but are due to the NPTR experiencing delays and not functioning properly.
In my opinion, tour operators and tourist vehicles should fall under the Ministry of Tourism, not the Department of Transport. The problem is that we still have tourism operators lumped together with public transport under one body, the NPTR. Tourism has very little to do with public transport and, like the airline industry, should not fall under the NPTR. Let the NPTR deal with taxis and scheduled bus services (public transport) and let tourist services and tour operators be regulated by the Ministry of Tourism. Let the NPTR focus on what it knows best – Public Transport.
A proposed solution.
As a wheels operator for many years, I have experienced countless frustrations and delays with operating licences. The process does not need to be complicated. Here is my proposed solution:
Firstly, separate tourism services from public transport. The regulations governing public transport should be completely different to the regulations governing tourist services.
Secondly, empower the Ministry of Tourism (rather than the Department of Transport) to accredit wheels operators, by setting up an accreditation body through a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) similar to SATSA's self-regulation project for Open Safari Vehicles. The appointed accreditation body should only look at the basic, essential requirements to operate legally and safely. Company registration, tax clearance, proof of public liability insurance, a statement of intent outlining its operations, and a policy document outlining the company's vehicle maintenance programme (which could be as simple as following the manufacturer's maintenance and service schedule through an authorised dealer or mechanic). Finally, a signed agreement undertaking to abide by the law, keep the vehicles roadworthy, and ensure drivers and guides are suitably qualified. This is enough to ensure the company is a safe and legitimate tourism operator, and can receive an accreditation certificate which may be renewed every 10 years. No inspection should be necessary. All vehicles can then carry a copy of the accreditation certificate.
Thirdly, for individual vehicles, there is no need to duplicate what is already in place. Tourism vehicles carrying passengers for reward already need an annual roadworthy certificate in order to get their licence disc and operator card. The annual roadworthy process ensures the vehicle is safe and roadworthy, and the licence disc and operator card are sufficient to allow that vehicle to carry passengers for reward. All the usual safety requirements can be checked during the annual roadworthy, such as the fire extinguisher, first aid kit and emergency exit signs. Traffic officers already do spot checks of driver's licenses and PDP for the driver, and may ask to see the accreditation certificate. No additional operating licence should be required. Cross-border permits can be applied for separately via the accreditation body.
Anything more than the above is unnecessary and does not contribute to making tourism vehicles safer. Extra regulations only duplicate these measures already in place and merely add red tape. Violations or complaints can then be referred to the self-regulation body, which will have the power to fine operators, impound vehicles or cancel accreditation.
The NPTR's primary concern is the safety of passengers, which is a noble goal. But let us not lose sight of the fact that most accidents and road deaths occur within the public transport sector (taxis and buses) and not within the tourism sector. Over-regulating and micro-managing the tourism sector will do nothing to prevent accidents and road deaths; it will only strangle and frustrate the tourism industry. The simplified process outlined above will free up the NPTR to deal with what it is supposed to deal with – public transport; making taxis and bus services safer for passengers, finding a way to accommodate Uber, managing public transport routes. Fix the problems commuters face every day. Let the tourism industry regulate itself and watch it flourish.