2010 and a Can of Worms

Good and bad has come out of the whole rooms4u saga and the conundrum of the “official South African accommodation and bookings portal.”

The good was renewing an old aquaintance with Sindiswa Nhlumayo,  the deputy directory-general of tourism.  She brought a bit of clarity to the whole issue.

The ‘bads’ were several.  Firstly, the Department of Tourism’s Head of Communications should be looking for another job.  He provided incorrect information by confirming that rooms4u is the official government and FIFA  bookings portal; he accused me of jealousy because CapeInfo didn’t get the appointment; and refused to put me through to Ms Nhlumayo’s office when I felt I was not getting anywhere.

Secondly, it transpires that rooms4u did try to mislead the public.  They stated clearly on their website “Welcome to the official South African and FIFA site for accommodation bookings for soccer world cup 2010.”  This was echoed in their two mass emailings to potential clients.  To claim this might stem from miscommunication is nonsense.  Before anyone starts making claims of that nature — if you are responsible and honest — you make very sure that there will be no comebacks.

Thirdly, one must question whether the so-called industry representative organisations do in fact represent the whole industry or merely a closed group of interests.  Did they apply their minds to the best solution for the industry at large or was the job just handed over to one of their own who sits on their boards?  It seems that thoughts of a tourism mafia are justified.

Ms Nhlumayo’s written response to CapeInfo sets out the Department of Tourism view of the situation:

There was negative recording about lack of available accommodation in South Africa.  As a Department we undertook an audit of available accommodation in all provinces of South Africa. When we were about the complete the process of collating information, MATCH and FIFA informed us that it would be appropriate to have the database linked to the booking engine so that people who will come to South Africa without booking can access information on available inventory.

As government, we felt that we were not able to run a booking engine. We were of the view that the Industry should agree on what would be the appropriate booking engine for the available inventory. We engaged with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and FEDHASA on the matter, since they were industry associations. We indicated that a booking portal should be something that must be led by the industry. They came back to us and indicated that as an industry association they had a solution to the matter, which was rooms4u.travel. They indicated that it is what the industry had endorsed. Both parties agreed in principle that rooms4u was an industry initiative and was endorsed by the association. The meeting took place at HICA Conference and the industry was represented by Brett Dungan (CEO of FEDHASA) and Mmatsatsi Marobe (CEO of TBCSA). Government was represented by myself and Aneme Malan Chief Director for Tourism Development. We requested both parties to give us a written confirmation.

We wanted confirmation in black and white, which we received. We agreed based on the principle that there are many booking agents out there and we were not going to stop the industry players from choosing whom they should book with. We also understood that there were many smaller players who were not linked to any booking engine. We were of the view that rooms4u was not going to replace other booking engines but will complement what exist and also focus on those that were not linked to any booking engine. We also understood that it was businesses choice to register with any booking engine based on accepting the conditions as provided by the supplier.

If this is problematic for the industry, it means that there is something wrong with how associations are run.

In this regard, I believe that we have done our part to collate data and the industry, through Fedhasa, has done its part to commit to an industry-led booking portal. If this is problematic for the industry, it means that there is something wrong with how associations are run. I am of the view that this matter should be dealt with by the industry and the industry must sort itself out.

As government, we understand that no one is forced to be linked with any particular booking engine, but as a country, we need to make it easier for consumers to access available inventory in South Africa.

The fact that the owner of the website rooms4u represented the whole tourism industry beggars belief and should have raised all sorts of questions!

But then the TBCSA provided CapeInfo with its response where it appears that only Fedhasa, yes, who’s CEO owns rooms4u, is the only organisation that has endorsed the initiative:

“Following recent reports and enquiries about the web portal Rooms4U, the Tourism Business Council of South Africa would like to make it clear that Rooms4U is a private enterprise venture and not a private sector driven initiative as was reported. Prior to its launch, the TBCSA was informed of this initiative, however, the Council did not officially endorse the portal as the Council does not endorse private enterprise initiatives. The Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa (FEDHASA), a member association of the TBCSA, has endorsed Rooms 4 U initiative.

“In response to your query about membership and representation within the TBCSA, I would like to highlight that the TBCSA is a member-based organisation and we strive to ensure that through the various sector associations who are our members, we represent the travel and tourism private sector.”

Something is patently not right. There seems to be a difference of opinion between the Department of Tourism and the TBCSA. And the website rooms4u carries the TBCSA logo implying endorsement.

CapeInfo is of the opinion that the so-called representation organisations do not represent the industry nor the interests of the industry as a whole, although we have been supportive of the TBCSA’s efforts to build a representative organisation since it was established in the mid-90s.

CapeInfo is a member of Cape Town Tourism — by far the largest and most successful tourism industry body in South Africa.  Neither CapeInfo nor Cape Town Tourism are members of the TBCSA nor Fedhasa, nor am I aware of any other tourism website that is a member of these bodies.  Nor has CapeInfo ever been approached to become a member of these bodies.  Other tourism representative bodies are also not members of the TBCSA or Fedhasa.

The whole rooms4u saga has undermined the credibility of the Department of Tourism, SA Tourism and TBCSA, not to mention Fedhasa which is left with almost no credibility. Who is going to make things right?

Postscript: Click here for more questions by Travelwires.com

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