South Africa Travel Continues to Grow

Cape Town was voted the number-one place to visit by The New York Times for 2014.
Cape Town was voted the number-one place to visit by The New York Times for 2014.

More than four years after the closing ceremonies of the World Cup in 2010, South Africa’s travel scene has continued to grow and improve, with new options catering to an ever-increasing range of interests. Travel Agent caught up with Sthu Zungu, who at the time of the interview was president of South African Tourism North America, to find out how the country’s travel scene is changing.

“The World Cup was so important to give South Africa the exposure it needed,” she says. The country’s story, she acknowledges, has been “a story of politics, of a country in turmoil.” The World Cup showed a country moving forward and demonstrated its strong infrastructure. She tells us, “The country invested over $1.8 billion in roadworks and airport upgrades and highway expansion, and another $40 million in telecommunication improvements.”

All of this, Zungu says, has helped improve the country’s inbound tourism, which grew 21 percent between 2010 and 2013. Of this growth, Zungu has noticed an increase in adventure tourism, which can have a wide variety of meanings for different travelers. In some parts of the country, it can include bungee jumping, but Zungu pointed out that many people consider safari an adventure.

The &Beyond Phinda Zuka Lodge is set amongst densely wooded hills.
The &Beyond Phinda Zuka Lodge is set amongst densely wooded hills.

Expanding Demographics

“We are seeing a lot of expats, older travelers who are coming to South Africa, and they want to be adventurous and go out and experience what the country has to offer,” Zungu says, but adds that Millennial travelers are also on the rise. “These are younger people who are not traveling like their parents or their grandparents traveled,” she notes. “If they hear that The New York Times says Cape Town is the number-one place to visit in 2014, they’re going to get on a flight and go to Cape Town. There’s this young group of travelers who are traveling the world [and] ticking the boxes as they go...In fact, we know that the spend of these people has risen by 20 percent and is one of the fastest growing age segments.”

South Africa is also seeing an increase in multigenerational travel, which Zungu believes started with the World Cup, as families flocked to cities to watch the games. In the ensuing years, multiple generations have returned to explore both the urban hubs and the famous national parks and private safari reserves.

“It used to be that some of the lodges didn’t take kids,” Zungu notes, but as more families seek out safari experiences, lodges are adapting to accommodate younger guests with dedicated children’s programs.” Similarly, tour operators are meeting the demand by creating more child-focused trips. &Beyond, for example, recently started a “Wild Child” program. With the popularity of the Discovery Channel as a family TV network, Zungu says, experiencing the African wilderness in person is becoming a bonding experience for generations.

Urban Buzz

Travelers can drive from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg Game Reserve, combining their stay in the city with a safari.
Travelers can drive from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg Game Reserve, combining their stay in the city with a safari.

While safari tours are still the most popular option in South Africa, it is becoming increasingly easy to combine these excursions with nearby urban experiences. Travelers can drive from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg Game Reserve, for example—spending two or three days in the city and then spending another three days on safari.

South Africa’s cities are attracting new visitors in their own right. “Johannesburg is a big city for shopping,” Zungu says, noting that even South Africans will travel to Joburg (as it’s known) for the shopping opportunities.

Cape Town, meanwhile, was voted the number-one place to visit by The New York Times for the year 2014, which significantly boosted its visitor profile. The city can appeal to a wide range of tastes, with Table Mountain attracting runners and mountain-climbers looking for a challenge; Robben Island attracting history buffs who want to see the prison where late President Nelson Mandela spent years in captivity; and the wine lands just outside of town attracting foodies and oenophiles.

“Durban is another city people are discovering for food because of the Indian, Zulu and English cultures that predominate that city,” Zungu adds, noting that the city’s beaches also attract families looking to swim in the Indian Ocean. Visitors can either take day trips to learn more about Zulu culture, visit the Mahatma Gandhi Center, or drive out to a national park for a one-day safari.

Ebola Fears

Despite its great strides in development and tourism growth, South Africa has seen a recent downturn in business due to fears of the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, even though the distance between South Africa and the affected areas is the same as the distance between New York and California.

While the virus is “a concern” for the country, Zungu emphasizes that despite the distance, the nation was taking precautions to “keep travelers safe and screen passengers.”

Upon arrival in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, passengers are screened for fever before they reach customs. “When people travel, they want to be safe,” she says. “South Africa is doing everything it can. We want people to understand where the cases are happening...We are doing our best to support our brothers [in West Africa] and make sure the virus is contained.” Traveler safety, she adds, is “a priority” for the country’s tourism scene.

“Our flights have been quite full over the last few months, but the concern is going forward,” Todd M. Neuman, executive vice president of South African Airways, said in an interview for in October.

Neuman says that SAA has already seen a roughly 5 percent fall in terms of advanced bookings compared to this time last year, but notes that South African Airways will continue to fly to South Africa with no changes in the airline’s service patterns or schedule for now.

Addendum: Following the interview with Travel Agent, Sthu Zungu was reportedly suspended from her position with South African Tourism. No further information is currently available.