Industry players say a long-standing shortage of foreign language tourist guides – which has been exacerbated by COVID-19, red tape, and visa issues – is threatening the sector and making it difficult to compete with other long-haul destinations.

Alisha Kirk, Academy Manager & Special Projects at Tourvest Destination Management said that the foreign-language guide pool had been under pressure for years, which has been exacerbated by fewer foreign guides being available to the industry after COVID.

“There is no greater plan from any department to address the matter. Instead, we find the red tape getting tighter and tighter, because the Department of Home Affairs doesn’t recognise language as a critical skill,” Kirk says.

The 2023 list of critical skills released by Home Affairs only includes languages as a critical skill for call centres, but makes no mention of tourism-related activities.


Chairperson of the National Federation of Tourist Guides Association (NFTGA), Zania Collin said the shortage was particularly apparent with Italian and German guides. The visa issue is further compounded by the fact that the visa is issued for “tourist guides” which requires a local guiding qualification. In order to qualify for the certification, a person must be competent in at least two of South Africa’s official languages.

She said the organisation had raised the issue of tourist guiding specific visas and queried it as part of their input into the Tourism Amendment Act. They’d also raised other issues prior to the COVID pandemic.

Both Kirk and Collin said operators were using accredited, English-speaking guides, with a translator or foreign-language guide in order not to fall foul of regulations.

“It is not cost-effective to have an unrecognised or unregistered guide or translator on board a vehicle plus another guide who can act as the official guide,” Collin said.

She said this made the country uncompetitive in certain price-sensitive markets.

“We lose business to countries in East Africa or even further abroad such as the Caribbean or Vietnam.”

Kirk added: “This not only makes touring more expensive but lowers the experience for the traveller. Let us not forget we are already an expensive and geographically far destination for some key source markets.“

Illegal activity

But despite the strict regulations, there seems to be little control leaving the door open to illegal activity. Last week, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee for Tourism released a statement, following the mismanagement of millions of rands in COVID relief funding meant for tour guides in 2020.

In its statement, the committee highlighted the lack of systems and databases to keep track of guides as part of the reason for problems such as duplicated payments and payments to deceased beneficiaries.

“The Tourism Department does not have access to an up-to-date deceased database, which is held by Home Affairs. The committee also encouraged the department to improve its process of vetting and registering tour guides,” read the statement.

Collin said unqualified and often unregistered guides were working with “total impunity”.

“The way the law is written, a criminal case has to be made by an interested party (typically a legal guide or tour operator), against these illegal guides, and nothing gets done about it.”

Kirk said in recent months, she’d encountered cases of registered foreign tour guides, operating with visas issued for the construction industry.

Department responds

In response to questions sent to the Department of Tourism, Mmaditonki Setwaba, National Registrar of Tour Guides said no formal communication regarding the matters raised by Kirk and Collin had been received by the Department.

She said the Department had rolled out a Mandarin training programme for tour guides, and a German training programme would be undertaken in the current financial year, for 20 guides from all nine provinces.

“Other languages will be considered, taking travel patterns and other factors into consideration.”

Despite information on the Department’s website indicating that guiding “is a critical component of the tourism value chain,” Setwaba said there had been no communication with the Department of Home Affairs around critical skills.

“The Department has on occasion escalated visa-related queries to the Department of Home Affairs, but without information to substantiate this issue it is challenging to engage with Home Affairs effectively on this subject.”

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to emailed questions by the time of publication.