The Department of Tourism is looking to increase the number of visitors heading to SA from the US, as part of a drive to encourage Americans to see SA as offering more than wildlife experiences.
Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk is in New York to outline SA’s tourism strategy for the next year, which aims to build on the post-Soccer World Cup visitor figures.
"After the tournament, South African tourism capitalised on the international awareness achieved from the Soccer World Cup and continued to grow, while other global markets had suffered," he said. "We didn’t repeat the mistakes of many other countries who had hosted major events, and we are seeing that success now."
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This is particularly the case with the US - which contributes one of the highest number of foreign leisure visitors to SA, after the UK and Germany.
Mr van Schalkwyk said the number of US visitors grew 2% last year - on top of 23% growth in 2010, and in the midst of the global economic meltdown.
He attributes this to the increase in direct flights to SA from international destinations, strong media partnerships and the marketing of SA as a destination with much to offer aside from the usual wildlife fare.
"We’ve been focusing on new growth areas, and marketing ourselves not just as a wildlife and safari destination but also one that has wonderful lifestyle products, such as food tourism, great wine, heritage and culture. For a growing number of people that’s what they want to do when they go to the continent of Africa."
Mr van Schalkwyk says niche markets are developing, like medical tourism, in which small industries are reporting a spin-off from people coming to SA for medical procedures they cannot afford in their own countries.
This year, international foreign tourist arrivals globally are set to reach 1-billion.
"In 1950 there were only 25-million arrivals," Mr van Schalkwyk said. "Two years ago, 880-million. Now, in 2012, for the first time ever, we will have 1-billion international arrivals by the end of November, beginning of December, if we look at the projections." This would grow to 1,6-billion in another eight years.
Asked about the effect on tourism of negative stories emanating from SA, such as the gang-rape video that hit CNN and New York Times headlines last week, and an article about racism in Cape Town that featured prominently in the US, Mr van Schalkwyk said such stories were not unique to SA.
"Negative things happen in many countries, and it’s for our government to deal with these situations. Whenever people have raised negative stories about SA in the past, we have seen tourists still come back again and again. We have one of the highest percentages of repeat visitors - 77%. And we have never had an issue we’ve felt was so bad that people won’t come back again."
SA’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, agreed and said a balanced view needed to be taken. "As ambassador to the US, I am always trying to get Americans to watch the movie, and not simply look at the snapshot that is shown of SA.
"The movie tells the story of where we were, where we are and where we are going. A snapshot of things can excite the senses in very negative ways.
"It’s really winning a battle for perspective more than anything else. More and more US citizens are watching the movie - on racism, on violence - and we aim to provide a balanced, safe view of SA, and Africa as a whole."