Picture the scene: you’ve just arrived at your four-star holiday hotel to find the paint peeling off the walls, the room smelling dank and pubic hairs in the bath. Not quite what the brochure promised but what recourse do you have now that the star system is redundant?
Most of us have grown up with the star grading scheme and understand the value of a three-star property versus a five- star property. In my time, the Holiday Inn brand represented the mid-market product and The Carlton hotel in Johannesburg or the Sandton Sun were the five-star benchmarks.
But the sad news is that stars have been redundant for the past two years and in fact, South Africa has no national grading and classification scheme.
The old scheme was run by the quasi- government South African Tourism Board (Satour), but the criteria became anachronistic in the new South Africa.
For example, if a hotel room did not have a television set, it could not be rated five-star. This excludes many of our exclusive game lodges from the equation and possibly puts them in a three-star category with city hotels like the City Lodge or Holiday Inn Garden Court. Fair? No offence to either one of these brands, but facilities such as game drives, bush walks and lavish meals and snacks are not part of their offering.
We have also seen the entrance of international players such as Hyatt, Hilton and Sheraton. How does a five-star rating add value to these big names when they have the credibility of international branding?
The breakdown of the scheme was also due to a revolt by the hotel industry, which felt it was unfair to grade only formal hotels and not B&Bs and guesthouses. Another objection was that funds from a grading levy were used for marketing purposes.
The irony is that the government and the private sector have since clubbed together to boost funds for generic marketing of South Africa. Hospitality companies around the country, including airlines, car rental companies and other tourism beneficiaries, all contribute to a tourism fund. These monies are passed on to the now transformed marketing body, South African Tourism (still known as Satour).
Satour launched its R110-million international marketing campaign in January this year, exposing South Africa to 60-million people abroad.
So millions of rands are being ploughed into tourism marketing, but what happens when they get here?
If throngs of tourists start making their bookings on the basis of polished television commercials, what quality assurance can a booking agent give them if we have no national standards or benchmarks and no directory of graded establishments? There are plenty of accommodation guidebooks around, but how much quality assurance they offer is questionable.
Many establishments that were graded years ago by Satour are still exhibiting their stars, but with no regular inspections or monitoring of safety and hygiene, standards could have slipped drastically.
Over the last two years, grading has become an issue fraught with squabbling.
The idea was to outsource grading to an outside party as is done abroad, but the 11 proposals received by Satour were deemed unsuitable.
Since then, a number of companies have launched their own quality assurance programmes using alternative symbols. Rights to the star symbol belong by law to Satour.
Sceptics have to wonder how these bodies can assess a property independently if the client, who is also their bread-and- butter business, is paying them.
A lot of talking has been taking place in the last year and the new Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Mohammed Valli Moosa, is a man of action. He will be appointing a private sector- driven Grading Council, which will represent the stakeholders (hotels, B&Bs, assessors, Satour and so on). The council will be allotted the task of marrying the old grading scheme to a revised system.
Accommodation will be segmented and criteria set for each type of establishment. The star symbol will be applied as it has international recognition and value. Independent assessors will be empowered to go out and inspect properties, hence bodies like the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) will still be in business. The new scheme will have no marketing benefits, allowing the SABS and others to offer these services as extras.
Brochures and guidebooks can paint a glossy picture, but what happens when the tourist gets there to find unacceptable conditions? Well, the answer is simple: that tourist will never come back again. Domestic travelers, too, can be sorely disappointed by this kind of experience.
Ask any hotel or B&B operator what is happening with grading and they will roll their eyes in despair and confusion.
However, there is a glimmer of hope with the latest developments and those in the know say a system is coming on board in May.