Update on South Africa's Tourism Scene

Several key members of South Africa’s tourism industry came to New York for a panel discussion about recent trends in travel to South Africa, and how Africa as a continent is faring as a popular tourism destination.

Ebrahim Rasool, Ambassador for South African Tourism, North America, said that Africa is changing its narrative as a destination. “A few years ago, people were focused on its problems, not the opportunities. That has changed. It’s now a destination for tourism, trade and investment.” The continent is the third-fastest growing region in the world after China and India, he added.

Thulani Nzima, CEO of South African Tourism, North America, added that the U.S. is the second-biggest market for South Africa after the United Kingdom—which, he noted, has seen a dropoff in tourism numbers while U.S. numbers are up. Last year saw record growth, and new campaigns with National Geographic and Whole Foods are helping promote the country’s visibility.

During 2010—the year that the FIFA World Cup was played all over South Africa—the country saw visits from the U.S. jump 23 percent, Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, Minister Of Tourism for South African Tourism said. This is not surprising given the coverage the games received—but what is notable is that in 2011, the country saw an extra 2 percent increase over the previous year. “We have made a commitment to this market,” Van Schalkwyk said. “Tourism is a key instrument for development.”

Over the last few years, he continued, the country has expanded its appeal beyond wildlife and safaris to include lifestyle, culture and heritage. Cities are increasing their convention capabilities, and global companies are paying attention. “This market is underexplored and underutilized,” Van Schalkwyk added.

Not that everything is perfect, of course: What Nzima calls a “patchwork of taxes”—such as green taxes and departure taxes—to and from various countries is making travel more expensive than it initially appears on a booking form. “We need a solution to these schemes,” he said, and also noted the need to develop e-visas from the G20 as a way to facilitate international travel.

Overall, signs are very good for African tourism in general, and for South Africa in particular. In 1950, the country saw 25 million international arrivals. Last year, it saw 800 million, and the team expects to reach the 1 billion point by the end of 2012. Even better, a full 77 percent of South Africa’s international visitors are returning for second and third looks at the country. “Tourists vote with their feet,” Nzima said. “They come back.”