Positive publicity, together with a sophisticated infrastructure, a core product that is consistently compelling and, more recently, an expanded offering have delivered sustained growth in travel to South Africa.
That’s the report from top tour operators to South Africa. Travel Market Report spoke with tour operator executives to find out more about what’s spurring travel to South Africa and how the tour product, and the customer, is changing.
Today’s travelers are more aware of the breadth of South Africa’s offering. One factor was hosting soccer’s 2010 World Cup. That showcased South Africa as “a modern first world country with all the exotic influences of Africa,” said African Travel president Jim Holden.
“After the World Cup was held in South Africa last year, most people realized that South Africa has a lot more to offer than wildlife. As the country’s slogan says, ‘It is a world in one country’ – great beaches, a fantastic array of activities with great scenery, wonderful restaurants, world class wine and friendly people,” Holden said.
Into the mainstream
South Africa has done such a good job of positioning itself that it has become almost a mainstream destination, perhaps not a Great Britain or Italy, but one that’s on the minds of many travelers, especially veteran travelers, said Dave Herbert, “chief experience officer” for Great Safaris.
Years of positive publicity have put South Africa “on the front burner” for seasoned travelers, said Herbert. He noted that South Africa constantly ranks at the top of travel magazine polls for destinations and hotels and that two of Travel + Leisure’s top hotels are in South Africa.
South Africa also has benefited because getting there is easier than it is for other African destinations, said Holden. He noted that South Africa offers “more choices for air and more frequency of flights.”
Tour programs: traditional and new
To some extent, South Africa’s tour product is defined by perennial favorites. Cape Town and Kruger National Park for big five game viewing have long been staples of South Africa itineraries – and they continue to be.
Among popular tour inclusions are whale watching, visiting an elephant rescue preserve and, in Cape Town, the Gold Museum and Table Mountain.
But new areas, activities and facilities are opening up too. Among the additions are new safari lodges, including in the northeast around the Limpopo River.
One result of last year’s World Cup is that South Africa now has a range of accommodations – three- to five-star – throughout the country. This has led to more diverse tour inclusions.
Waterberg, in northern Limpopo Province is another new area. David Jones, vice president of luxury operator Ker & Downey, noted the area’s dramatic scenery and five-star properties. “You can do Big Five game viewing with luxury accommodations.”
In the Kalahari desert, west of Johannesburg, “there’s a Relais & Chateau property where one can see all the desert wildlife, including elephants who have adapted to live in that climate,” Holden said.
Holden also noted newly accessible wildlife areas in the southeast and lodges just north of Durban where one can see Rhino and saltwater crocodiles.
Johannesburg’s apartheid story
“In South Africa, you go for everything – cuisine, cities, unbelievable wines, game viewing, great white sharks and whales off the Indian Ocean coast,” said Jones.
Johannesburg is one destination that should not be missed, he added.
Ker & Downey’s two-night Johannesburg program includes a tour of Soweto, conducted by master storyteller and history guide Robin Binckes, who gives a personalized version of the apartheid struggle. “Everyone who goes through that experience is moved by it,” Jones said.
A family experience like no other
One of South Africa’s “huge benefits is that you can do a full itinerary – including beach, wildlife and game viewing and city – that is malaria-free,” Jones said.
Not having to worry about malaria makes South Africa particularly ideal for families traveling with children, Holden added.
And multigenerational travel to South Africa is “definitely on the upswing,” according to Lion World Tours president Lucille Sive. “What a great way to spend time together, around a campfire in a game park, with the sounds of the African bush as background music.”
South Africa tours offer really interesting things for children to do, said Sive. “Most of the game parks have children’s programs where they learn to track animals and to distinguish between different animals and birds.”
“Families can also do interactive cooking classes together and learn to prepare African dishes. Children can even sleep with the sharks at the Aquarium in Cape Town.”
Custom-crafted for value
Tour operator itineraries are more suggestions than set in stone, the executives emphasized. By working with agents and their clients to customize programs, they can develop itineraries that provide great value, the operators said.
Customized itineraries also allow agents to deliver experiences for group and FIT clients that they’ll rave about to friends and relatives, Herbert said.
For instance, for active clients, itineraries can be enriched with options such as hiking, mountain climbing, surfing and shark diving. Ballooning and swimming with the sharks are also popular, Sive said.
Another example: itineraries can be designed to appeal to foodies too. “We do chocolate tastings, olive tastings. It is not just wine tastings at South Africa’s renowned vineyards anymore. Now our clients want to have the whole foodie experience,” Jones said.
The tour executives noted that they are available for training and sales events, and they are eager to participate with agents in educating clients about the destination and putting together tours that meet clients needs.