Cultural tourism a big draw for visitors to South Africa

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CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- Once of interest to only a few American travelers, generally because of its wildlife, Africa is today increasingly recognized as a destination of great cultural richness. As travel industry frontiers expand and travelers look for new destinations and travel experiences, the attraction of Africa is spreading far beyond safari enthusiasts.

That is especially true here in post-apartheid South Africa, where the melding of long-segregated cultures has energized the performing and visual arts. Even the dark past that forms this country's recent history is being explored with a fresh sense of wonder and hope in museums across the land.

That isn't to say that safaris are losing popularity or that the safari experience is any less spectacular. In Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, game drives remain among the most extraordinary travel experiences available. In fact, increasing environmental consciousness and the growing endangerment of many species has only increased their popularity and lent a sense of urgency to travelers considering a safari tour.

But once people arrive in Africa for the animals, the jungle and the savannah, they increasingly recognize that it also offers tremendous cultural diversity. Many who first come here for the safari experience return later to explore a wide and robust range of visual and performing arts. Not surprisingly, a growing number of tour operators are moving to capture that demand.

General Tours, which has offered a variety of Africa itineraries since the 1960s, reports that its Africa business is up 40% this year over last, and the growth is coming from beyond the safari.

"The affluent traveler is looking for more exotic destinations," said Helena Novak, General Tours' senior vice president of business development. "Today, people are interested in culture, food and wine, social development, apartheid museums, neighborhoods. There is also increased interest in local festivals -- not touristic or trivial things, more experiential, more hands-on activities."

David Herbert, founder and director of African Travel, which has been sending Americans to South Africa since 1976, has also noticed the change. "Most of our clients, the more sophisticated, better-traveled people, are seeing Africa as a destination for the experiential traveler, not just for the wildlife," he said "That's just one of the attractions."

Ten years ago, African Travel's customers spent 40% of their trips on safari, Herbert said. Today it's only 25%.

"People want to experience the culture, meet the people, have interaction with them, see some of the beauty and sights as well," he said. "We put the game toward the middle of the itinerary and fill it out with cultural experiences and sights. And we've slowed down the pace of travel."

Dennis Pinto, president of Micato Safaris, observed, "The travelers who are going to Africa now are younger, more active and really well read. They are coming with a lot of answers and lot of questions, much more than we saw five or six years ago. It makes for a more interesting trip. Today's travelers are coming with an agenda -- not only wildlife but beyond wildlife."

It is still usually the return traveler who goes to Africa for culture, said Gael Timms, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent Southern Africa.

"When clients arrive on our shores, attracted by the renowned game-viewing at Kruger National Park and the adjoining private reserves, they soon realize that South Africa has much more to offer," Timms said. "Most-discerning travelers want to meet local people to better understand the cultural heritage of our rainbow nation.

"Most take the opportunity to visit Robben Island, where they are taken on a private tour with a former political prisoner, to better understand what Nelson Mandela and so many others experienced. Many also choose to visit local craft workshops such as Streetwires, a small business that addresses the problem of unemployment and poverty by teaching unskilled workers how to create original and affordable wire and beaded jewelry and artwork. In Johannesburg, more and more clients are visiting the Apartheid Museum and the township of Soweto to gain a better understanding of life during the apartheid era."

The shift is by no means exclusive to the more affluent levels of the market. Globus, one of the world's largest tour operators and positioned solidly midmarket, is also adapting its Africa programs.

"People are not going specifically for the animals," said Jen Halboth, Globus' channel marketing manager. "They are also going for the landscapes, the culture, the flowers, the cultural and historical aspects. We go beyond the safari so they will get that whole range, not just the animals. Globus will make sure there's a healthy dose of what the destination is known for, but we also show you things you didn't know about that part of the world."

Many operators report seeing increased interest in family travel to Africa. "Africa didn't used to be a family destination," said Pamela Lassers, director of media relations for Abercrombie & Kent. "We're also seeing a growth in our honeymoon trips, where people go to a diamond mine and choose their diamond."

While that is clearly a niche market, if you aggregate a lot of niches, you end up with a destination that has broad appeal.

"Over the last five or six years, Africa as a whole has become much more attainable for the average traveler," said Laudie Hanou, vice president of the tours division for Sita World Travel. "In Africa, overall, there is a trend toward bringing children. We're also seeing a big demand for our train journeys, the Blue Train, Rovos Rail and Shongolo, and our luxury programs. "

Even within the wildlife category, tour operators are going beyond the familiar to offer experiences ranging from whale watching or shark diving in South Africa to gorilla treks in Uganda or Rwanda.

South Africa's renaissance

The growing demand for cultural travel to Africa can be attributed in part to the general expansion of travel frontiers worldwide. But the process is being supercharged by a parallel historical development: the emergence of South Africa from the oppressive apartheid era, when it was largely ostracized by the world community. Only 13 years after its first multiracial election, South Africa is a vibrant young democracy that is experiencing a booming social and economic renaissance.

Market research conducted by South Africa Tourism, the government's tourist board, suggests that the No. 1 reason Americans give for traveling to South Africa is to experience the culture. Second is scenic beauty. The safari experience comes in third.

Simultaneously, tour operators say that in recent years the standard entry point for leisure travelers to the continent has been slowly shifting from eastern Africa to South Africa. 

"One of the main reasons people are starting to go to South Africa first is because there is more to do," said Ashish Sanghrajka, vice president of sales and partner relations at Big Five Tours. "You don't have as sophisticated a city as Cape Town anywhere else in Africa. When people think of culture in Africa, they usually would think of Egypt or Morocco. But that's changing."

Sanghrajka ticked off elements of South Africa's growing appeal: In addition to the vital, bustling urban centers of Cape Town and Johannesburg, he listed "the Garden Route, the history of Durban, the opal mines, music, jazz, the arts. The architecture is a whole other story. People compare Cape Town to Sydney. It's a very sophisticated city."

Just as Eastern Europe blossomed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid triggered a release of pent-up energy and creativity. South Africa's resulting renaissance is a historic event that in itself draws business and tourism.

In 1987, after anti-apartheid boycotts in Europe and the U.S. had taken a significant toll, South Africa's economic growth fell to among the world's lowest levels, a precipitous drop from the 1960s when its economic growth had been second only to Japan's.

The apartheid government, which took power in 1948 with a radical program to separate the black population completely from the white population, failed miserably in its attempt to turn back history and reverse the emergence of the country's multiracial society.

Liberalization took place in steps during the 1980s, with negotiations over the freeing of Nelson Mandela and repeal of some of the more extreme apartheid laws. In the late 1980s, in its final, desperate attempt to cling to the status quo, the government unleashed a wave of violent repression in which thousands were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured. At least 4,000 were killed. 

Mandela was finally freed in 1990 after 27 years in prison. A year later, the government repealed the 148 apartheid laws that had prohibited blacks from voting, owning property, drinking alcohol and engaging in sex with whites. In 1994, Mandela was elected president on a platform of creating a diverse and democratic society.

No one claims that South Africa today is a utopia. Unemployment is 25%, according to the government, but that is a major improvement over the 40% unemployment rate of 2002. Illiteracy is 30%. The gap between rich and poor remains wide, but it is no longer drawn as strictly along racial lines.

"During apartheid, a whole generation boycotted school in protest," said Dave Herbert, director and founder of African Travel. "They're out in the workplace now. What do they have to offer?"

A great deal of today's optimism focuses on the recent surge of economic growth, in which tourism plays a major role.

"Today the gross domestic product is no longer dependent on gold." said Joe Motsogo, a Johannesburg tour guide. "We have textiles, steel, mining, farming, services, technology, banking and tourism."

Tourism is among the best sources of new jobs for South Africa, a fact recognized by the government, which has funded tourism campaigns generously.

African Travel's Herbert said the socially conscious traveler should now recognize that "in Africa, you really are helping. Tourism puts the economic development right into those remote areas that most need it."

Rainbow culture

Webster's dictionary defines culture as "the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends on man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations." By that measure, Africa's cultural treasures are vast and deep.

In addition to its many and diverse indigenous cultures, Africa has been touched since the 1600s by cultural influences from around the world. Those influences are manifested today in the cuisine, visual arts, architecture, music and the performing arts, dress, business and manners.

"The thing you experience in South Africa is real wonder," said Felicia Suttle, president of South Africa Tourism's U.S. office. "Apart from breathtaking natural scenic beauty, there is that 'African-ness' that is interspersed with an international flair. Walking in the streets you see well-dressed people in their Guccis and Pradas and also African chic. The colors are fantastic. You are seeing, touching, feeling that beauty that we don't experience in Western culture."

A&K's Lassers said most Americans do not realize that as a center of maritime trade for centuries, Cape Town evolved into a sophisticated international city.

"The Malay quarter in Cape Town is fascinating," Lassers said. "There was an influx of people from all over the world. The cultural cross-fertilization is so well expressed there in a very unique way."

In addition, South Africa is more developed than most Americans expect, Lassers said. "South Africa has first-world infrastructure, terrific roads, good transportation. You are easily able to get places, from Cape Town to the wine country in Stellenbosch to Hermanus, which has the whales. People on our family tours really love to spend time in that area."

For centuries, Africa was the prize for competing nations that colonized its shores and pushed aggressively inland in pursuit of the continent's vast resources. As a result, practically every European and most major Asian cultures have left strong legacies here. Their blending over the centuries has led to a rich cultural tapestry continually enlivened by abundant cross-fertilization.

That complex cultural legacy is in evidence at practically every turn. For example, a restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg, named Lekgotla (Zulu for "meeting place") is conceived as a point at which the multitude of African cuisines meet. Its menu is influenced by the Spice Islands, the French of the west, the Malay and Dutch influences of the south, the Arab influences of the north and the Portuguese and Indian influences of the east.

African art and music

Although Africa's indigenous development was fundamentally different from that of the Western world, its influence on world culture has been profound.

In painting, the impact of African art on Picasso and Matisse sent a shockwave through Western art that radically transformed painting and sculpture in the 20th century.

The same can be said of African music, the roots of syncopated American jazz and blues and, by extension, popular music the world over.

Over the last six decades, Western musicians from jazz drummer Gene Krupa to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to singer-songwriter Paul Simon have made personal treks to Africa to re-energize their music with exposure to the source culture.

"One of the things we've done," said Micato's Pinto, "is give people iPods with African music. It opens a new dimension. Most tours don't get into music of the region. It opens conversations, gets guides and drivers and people with you into musical conversations." 

As Michael Lutzeyer, the South African owner of the resort and nature preserve Grootbos in South Africa put it, "Music is in the African heart."

African music was prized by European colonists early on. The Dutch East India Company established its colonial base in Cape Town in 1652, when slave trafficking was already a well-established practice, and by 1676, the Dutch governor already had his own slave orchestra.

In Africa, music is ever present, and travelers can enjoy it in restaurants and nightclubs, shopping at music stores or through events like the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, which was held on March 30 and 31.

At a festival news conference, American jazz pianist Joe Sample commented on his new appreciation for South Africa, a place that is still new to him because he was unable to visit during apartheid.

"There seems to be in the South African culture a trait of loving music," Sample said. "Music is very important in the lives of all South Africans. I don't find that everywhere. In the U.S., we sometimes go places where people could care less about music, or they only know what they hear on Top 40."

New frontiers

As cultural travel moves into the mainstream in South Africa, some of the more adventurous tour operators keep pushing the envelope elsewhere in Africa. International Expeditions, a subsidiary of First Choice Travel, is offering tours that will further explore Africa's diverse landscape.

"We have a camping journey in the central Sahara, in Niger," said International Expeditions president Ralph Hammelbacher.

"It's much more varied than you might think. We see the sandstone mountains in amazing shapes, some of the last camel caravans in the world plying the millennia-old trade from salt oases in the central Sahara. We get to meet some of the nomadic people who survive in some of the most challenging environments. There's no place like it anywhere on earth."

International Expeditions also offers an cruise and land journey through Mali, Senegal and Gambia in West Africa.

"You'll fly off to some of the most interesting places in all of Africa, inhabited for over a thousand years, with elaborate and very rich cultures and histories," Hammelbacher said.

Tour operators to Africa, already bullish about the destination, see South Africa moving onto the center stage of world travel with soccer's World Cup planned for Johannesburg in 2010.

"Nearly 200,000 Americans visited South Africa last year," said African Travel's Herbert. "That's a great number. It used to be 40,000, and I suspected some were double-counted. But it's still incredibly small when you look at the potential.

"We are now looking at substantial growth, and I'm not talking 10% or 20%. We're at the right place at the right time. With travel agents now really getting behind the destination and helping to create interest and buzz, and other factors including airlift and hotel capacity, I would think that moving that 200,000 to 300,000 out of a country with 60 million passport holders, that's doable."

The problems this country faces are daunting, but the sense of belief in what South Africans call their "transformation" is palpable.

"We're not saying there are no challenges," said South African Tourism's Suttle. "We are still trying to rectify sins of past. The scars will continue for generations to come. But we are saying to Americans: You helped us in our fight against apartheid. Now that we've gained freedom, we would like you to come enjoy the beautiful country that just a few used to enjoy."

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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