Southern Africa is Sizzling

Southern Africa is hot, and getting hotter. And if tourism officials have anything to say about it, Americans will be hearing and seeing a lot more about the region in the coming months and years. As South African Tourism (SAT) president Dr. Felicia Mabuza-Suttle says: "By 2014, our goal is to have South Africa as well known a brand as Coca-Cola is in America."

Dr. Suttle may be on to something. These days, the stars seem to be aligned for the tourism industry in South Africa. The country has seen overall strong growth in American arrivals since 2002, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down: The number of total North American tourists visiting the country from January to December 2005 increased 11.8 percent over the same period in 2004, and the January to June 2006 numbers show a 10.3 percent increase over that of 2005.

This boom isn't limited to South Africa; the rest of southern Africa is undergoing a tourism awakening as well. South African Airways (SAA) recently launched its "Visit Southern Africa" initiative, offering a complete range of air-and-land packages in South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia. The goal is to position southern Africa among the world's top adventure travel destinations. Travel Agent Education

What many travel professionals are finding, however, is that southern Africa is already on savvy tourists' radar. "The best-kept secret is out," says Phoebe Weinberg, with Greatways Travel in Grosse Point, MI. "I've gotten any number of 2008 bookings already; space is harder and harder to get."

Julian Harrison, president of Premier Tours in Philadelphia, agrees. "Africa as a whole is pumping," he says. "Botswana is swamped—in the summer it's usually slow, but now we're struggling to get space for people year round." South African Airways is seeing more consistent business year round as well. "We used to see dips at certain times of the year," says SAA spokes-man Roberto Cuesta. "Now we see consistent passenger traffic patterns all year long."

One factor influencing the increase in travel is safety. "Like any other place in the world, South Africa has its challenges," says Dr. Suttle. "Happily, the government has made safety a priority and is looking for ways to help alleviate poverty. Tourism is a major factor."

A lion in Kruger National Park in South Africa

Of course, no one can dismiss the power of celebrity endorsements, à la Brad and Angelina in Namibia and Oprah in South Africa. "We believe in word of mouth, and celebrity endorsements start the conversation," says Dr. Suttle.

Travelers are discovering not only first-world infrastructure, but also first-class infrastructure. Those seeking high adventure and high-end accommodations are well served: Its resorts consistently rate at the top of luxury travelers' "Best Of" lists, and as Weinberg says, "There's always new product." "People have no idea the kind of luxury you can experience in the bush," says Lucille Sive, president of Lion World Tours in Toronto.

"It's a market that's looking for new destinations, something different," says SAA's Cuesta. And it's a clientele that keeps coming back for more. "We're finding that people who go to southern Africa for that 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip invariably make it back," says Sive. In fact, research has shown that some 43 percent of U.S. visitors to South Africa are repeat visitors.

South Africa

South Africa's big news is that the country will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup of Soccer, the first time the event will be held on African soil. Over $2 billion in government spending will go to World Cup capital projects, including 10 stadiums in the nine host cities. The international terminal at JohannesburgInternationalAirport (which recently opened a state-of-the-art domestic terminal) will be enlarged. "Jo'burg has become the gateway to South Africa," says SAA's Cuesta. "And the World Cup will be a great showcase for the country."

A Western Cape vineyard

Tourism officials are working hard on marketing initiatives targeted specifically to Americans. SAT just completed an eight-city "mini-trade" road show in the U.S.—a "virtual trip to South Africa" as Dr. Suttle describes it—that drew 1,800 travel agents. The agents were given an immersion in the South African market, through suppliers, tour operators and parks officials. During the next fiscal year, South African Tourism begins a big media push with its "South Africa Sizzles" initiative in April 2007.

SAT has developed other creative ways of promoting the brand. In New York City, during the U.S. Open, 25 city buses were branded 'S.A.' There was also a subway campaign and skywriting over Central Park saying "Visit South Africa;" plus, traditional Zulu dancers were sent to New Orleans for the Zulu Mardi Gras parade.

South African Airways' Visit Southern Africa program "will be the focus for us for the next 18 months," says Cuesta. In addition, SAA is a new member of the Star Alliance and will partner with United Airlines. "The partnership...opens up flights from L.A., San Diego, Las Vegas, Seattle and Chicago," says Cuesta. Another new SAA product enhancement are lie-flat seats in SAA's Premium (Business) Class.

Because of SAA's new partnership with Star Alliance, the airline is no longer partnering with Delta or flying out of Atlanta. The 15-hour Washington, D.C.Johannesburg flight is currently the airline's only nonstop flight from the U.S.New York flights now make a stop in Dakar.

The development of new product and existing-property upgrades continues apace. Leading the way is Cape Town, which was named the number one city in Africa by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler. Here the name of the game is small, exclusive boutique hotels. Among the new properties are Urban Chic, a 20-room hotel with meeting facilities for 100 on fashionable Long Street; and the Hemingway Lodge, a spacious new addition to the award-winning Hemingway House. The waterfront 329-room luxury Table Bay Hotel recently completed a multimillion-dollar refurbishment that includes marble butler stations and a full-service holistic spa.

International awards keep pouring in for the Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa, which opened in December 2004 in Knysna, along the

Garden Route
. Pezula has access to secluded NoetzieBeach, an 18-hole championship golf course, and 78 suites, each with a fireplace, balcony and well-stocked pantry.

Botswana and Beyond

The heaviest tourist activity in southern Africa is in South Africa, but Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique are humming as well. (Zimbabwe has some of the best game parks on the continent, but instability has put it on the U.S. State Department's Travel Warnings list.)

Many agents and tour operators sell packages incorporating often vastly different elements of the southern Africa experience. Lucille Sive, for example, recommends a "bush and beach" trip to South Africa and Mozambique. Safari itineraries often combine bush camp stays in both South Africa and Botswana.

Botswana, with its low-density, high-yield tourism ethos, is a stunning success story in sustainable ecotourism. Its luxury concessions have earned high marks among travelers; three Botswana camps made Condé Nast Traveler's 2006 Top 50 Best of the Best lodgings in the world: Chief's Camp, Chobe Chilwero and Mombo. Nearly half of the country is protected wilderness. "Botswana is...a place with wide-open spaces and very small camps, something like 18 beds per camp. If you see another vehicle during a game drive, it's a crowd," says Julian Harrison.

The U.S. is currently the country's second-largest long-haul travel group, after the U.K. Tourist arrivals in Botswana grew by nearly 8 percent from 1999 to 2003, and it's estimated that those numbers may double by the end of the year. To cope with this increased volume, the government plans to institute an Open Skies policy in 2007 to entice other airlines to challenge Air Botswana's virtual monopoly.

Many specialist agents consider Mozambique one of southern Africa's best-kept secrets. "Mozambique is so unspoiled," says Sive. "It's easily one of the most beautiful places on earth." The country now enjoys a politically stable climate and a gorgeous coastline that is a magnet for divers and beach lovers.

Sive recommends two new beachside resorts in Mozambique, both Rani Resorts properties. Medjumbe Island Resort, 13 thatched chalets on a white-sand beach, plans further enhancements in 2007, including private plunge pools and sun decks for each chalet. "At Medjumbe, we sat down at the bar for a drink expecting typical bar snacks like nuts or pretzels, and they brought in this 20-ounce lobster," says Sive. "And they do this every night. It's like paradise." Matemo Island Resort comprises 24 thatched chalets on a private island.

Few people had considered Namibia a tourism contender before Brangelina; now people are discovering not only spectacular unspoiled scenery but also a well-developed tourism infrastructure. "Namibia is definitely becoming more popular," says Harrison. "Currently, however, it tends to be more of a second or third destination, or a trip you might combine with a safari."

Those who do include Namibia in their itinerary find that the country has much to recommend on its own. Harrison touts Serra Cafema Camp, an oasis in the middle of a desert. Visitors stay in a camp built on the banks of a river, on a lush greenbelt surrounded by harsh desert. He also recommends Wilderness Safaris' Little Kulala, an atmospheric lodge on a 46,000-acre private reserve with views of the famous red sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Namibia's SkeletonCoast is another draw. "When you fly along the coast in a small plane, you can see seals playing in the water on one side and on the other side big sand dunes where elephants are playing," says Harrison. "It's spectacular."

To help tourists and the trade make informed decisions about accommodations, the Namibia Tourist Board has recently developed a Star Grading System to assess the quality of the country's lodgings.

Weddings and Honeymoons

Southern Africa is seeing a rise in destination weddings. A growing trend, according to Sive, is taking the entire family on a destination safari wedding. And the region is experiencing an "explosion of honeymoons," says Phoebe Weinberg. Lion World has even created a Honeymoon Registry for customized trips to southern Africa.

At press time, the South Africa Parliament's vote to legalize same-sex marriages seemed likely to mean a sharp rise in gay travel. Cape Town is already one of the world's top gay destinations.

Family Travel

Southern Africa is only now jumping on the family safari bandwagon that Kenya and Tanzania have mined for years. More and more family safari opportunities are opening up, particularly in KrugerNational Park and non-malarial reserves like Madikwe. One Kruger lodge that actively encourages children, with a kid-friendly program, is Londolozi, a Relais & Châteaux property with 24 tents and superb leopard sightings. Even in lodges where children are not allowed on safari, a number have "family rooms." Luxury Kruger property Singita, for example, has just opened two three-bedroom family units in its various lodges.

Contact Information

South African Tourism 800-593-1318 www.southafrica.net

Botswana Tourism 267-3953024 www.botswanatourism.org.uk or www.botswana-tourism.gov (latter not up to date with contacts) dwnp@gov.bw

Namibia Tourism Board 264-61-290-6000 www.namibiatourism.com.na

Mozambique 258-21309090 www.africaguide.com/mozamb or www.mozambique.mz (latter in Portuguese)