Are the Minister of Tourism and his Department (DOT) a bunch of blundering idiots or are they getting into bed with a tourism mafia? Their latest announcement seems to be ill-conceived and acknowledges that accommodation arrangements for the 2010 World Cup are not as rosy as he claims.
Here are the facts:
It started on Tuesday when we received an email from a website called rooms4u claiming to be the official South African accommodation and bookings portal, accredited by FIFA, and supported by the DOT, SA Tourism, Fedhasa, Tourism Business Council of SA, etc.
Now everybody in the hospitality industry has been subjected to a flood of emails from new websites that promise the world and his wife for 2010, so our first thought was that this is another scam. And we wrote to the DOT, 2010 Organising Committee, SA Tourism and Fedhasa saying, “What’s going on?”
Website ownership is in the public domain so we looked it up. rooms4u is owned by Kiara Holdings and its MD is Brett Dungan, who is also the CEO of Fedhasa and the chair of the Tourism Business Council [correction — board member]. Could he have the clout to grab all those bednights that the World Cup needs so badly, and that many others have been working very hard to cater for?
Only the DOT responded to all our emails and it was with a phone call the next day from the Head of Communications.
He confirmed that rooms4u is the new official South African accommodation and bookings portal. It is accredited by FIFA. There was no tender or public awareness process because it is a businesswide initiative, he said.
So why is the website owned by a private company? He didn’t answer that but kept repeating that it’s a businesswide initiative supported by MATCH, SA Tourism, Fedhasa, etc.
Why were provincial and city tourism authorities unaware of all of this, since many have devoted a lot of effort to 2010 and the World Cup? He sidestepped that one too but said if we have problems with the new portal, we must take it up with our provincial tourism authority.
He promised to email the press release with the announcement several times, as though that would solve all disputes, but it never arrived.
Sorry, this sounds like a scandal in the making.
A week ago, SA Tourism was still discussing mechanisms to link 2010 fans to the existing portals offering online booking, and they were considering a panel of approved websites.
Calvyn Gilfellan, Cape Town Routes Unlimited’s CEO, was surprised when CapeInfo told him about the Minister’s announcement. “Both SA Tourism and DOT’s position on booking portals was consistently one of not getting involved. They have left it up to the provinces, local tourism organizations and private sector,” he said. Both Cape Town Routes Unlimited (CTRU) and Cape Town Tourism rely on booking commisions for revenue.
He agreed that the whole thing is irregular because they knew nothing about it, although they are in frequent contact with the DOT and are working on three initiatives with them.
After further enquiries, Gilfellen wrote saying that “SA Tourism has come back to us and suggested that it be an urgent item on the agenda for Friday’s national marketing manager’s forum in Johannesburg.”
The DOT advised CTRU to ignore my questions saying they would respond to them. We’ve received nothing. A further email to Sindiswa Nhlumayo, deputy director-general of tourism, also elicited no response.
This has all the makings of another scam and scandal.
rooms4u advertises free listings but there are no terms and conditions. They say an (optional) allocation and booking system will follow in March 2010 and “your world-wide exposure to all travelers and potential customers will commence.”
There is no mention of any booking commissions or other fees that might be introduced when the world-wide exposure commences. Will this official website offer free bookings and exposure or, if MATCH is part of the rooms4u equation, does that mean that the total fee will again be 30–40%? It’s only good business practice to state this upfront.
And what will happen to rooms4u after the World Cup? Will it be closed down or will it continue to compete with other websites, as South Africa’s official accommodation and bookings portal? Will government continue to promote it after 2010?
Surely it is the public’s right to see the contract between the Department of Tourism and Kiara Holdings, or are Fedhasa and the Tourism Business Council a front for Kiara Holdings?
The boards of SA Tourism and the Tourism Business Council comprises some heavyweight businesspeople known for their integrity. One wonders if they were fully informed of the process or has this caught them by surprise too, like the provincial and city tourism authorities?
This sends out all the wrong messages. It seems to say that if you sit on boards, you can get a slice of the cake. Surely the Minister must have been aware that the appointment of a single website owned by a high profile businessman would come under public scrutiny?
The old British Tourism Authority had a very clear way of levelling the playing field but still giving website visitors access to online booking. They published a list of criteria for accredited websites offering online booking. They linked to all websites that met their criteria and took no commissions.
But if MATCH is there wanting their pound of flesh, that’s not going to happen.
MATCH got things badly wrong in South Africa. They had to change their usual rules. SA doesn’t have the stock of graded accommodation they could call upon elsewhere, and they tried to embrace the small accommodation sector that provides the bulk of all rooms in SA. But they didn’t change their modus operandi to go with it. They have been bad communicators and tried to impose big hotel practices on more laissez faire establishments.
With this announcement, ‘Kortbroek’ van Schalkwyk seems to have been caught with his pants right down.
Click here for the Minister’s media statement.