For the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, South African Tourism (SAT) brought 100 delegates from the U.S. travel trade to attend Indaba, the African travel trade show, May 8-10 at the Albert Luthuli Convention Centre in Durban, South Africa. The contingent included about 35 members of the media and 65 representatives of the travel trade, including travel agents, tour operators, group organizers and buyers.
The Americans who took South African Airways’ long diagonal route from New York or Washington D.C. to Johannesburg found themselves in an upside-down world. In traveling from the northern hemisphere to the southern, a distance nearly a third of the circumference of the earth, they had moved from spring to fall, to a place where cars drive on the opposite side of the road and water spins the opposite direction in the sink, a world with a geography, history and culture strikingly different from what they are familiar with in North America.
But as different as it is, the affinities between the two countries run strikingly deep. In bringing Americans to South Africa, South African Tourism is working on the proven theory that once Americans experience South Africa, they will fall in love, become devotees and will spread the word, building South Africa’s tourism arrivals numbers, which have grown steadily since the country opened to the world under its first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, in 1994.
In honor of Mandela’s 100th birthday, SAT arranged itineraries for the visitors designed around the theme of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. The tours included visits to Mandela’s Johannesburg law office, his home in Soweto, and the Grand Parade in Cape Town, where Mandela first addressed 50,000 people upon his release after spending 27 years in prison as a political prisoner.
The Mandela centenary gave an extra kick of enthusiasm to the production of Indaba, the largest showcase for travel on the continent of Africa, with 22 African countries represented. The show drew 1,747 buyers from around the world and showcased 1,120 exhibitors.
In his speech before ringing the opening bell for the event, Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s minister of tourism, who worked with Mandela in the former President’s cabinet in 1994 and 1995, pointed out that while there were 1.2 billion international travelers in 2015, Africa attracted only 62 million, a mere 5 percent of the total for the second largest continent in the world, large enough to contain the U.S. three times over.
According to Hanekom, that is a formula for enormous growth potential. “This is the place for growth and opportunity,” he said. In a special message to the media, he said, “When you’re telling your stories, be sure to tell how tourism is changing Africa.”
To the buyers and sellers he said, “Every sale that you clinch is not just for yourself, but it creates jobs and addresses the problems of poverty and unemployment.” South Africa is now maintaining a 27 percent unemployment rate.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s new President since the resignation of the embattled Jacob Zuma on Feb. 14, has called tourism “low-hanging fruit” and stated his intent to support tourism for its value in building economic growth that penetrates to all levels of society. Since Ramaphosa took office, South Africa seems to be breathing a sigh of relief and enjoying a lift in morale that can be seen in increasing investment and activity in the tourism industry.
Sthembiso Dlamini, chief operating officer of South African Tourism, told the media at a press conference that the agency is focusing primarily on three objectives this year. First is to leverage the Madhiba [Mandela] centenary to attract visitors. “Nelson Mandela is not only an icon for South Africa,” she said. “He is a global icon.”
SAT is also focusing in the African American market and the LGBT market, Dlamini said. The Indaba trade show will run for two more days.