With the unveiling of South Africa's "We Do Tourism" marketing campaign at the popular travel trade show Indaba in Durban this month, President Jacob Zuma called on all tourism players in the country to reunite and grow tourism.
"Tourism activities extend into every corner of our country: into cities and rural areas, into townships, into our mountains, our forests and our coastline," he said. "With this campaign, people will appreciate the immense value of tourism in their lives."
The aim of the campaign, according to Zuma, is to make South Africa one of the top 20 tourism destinations in the world. "We want to attract 5 million more international arrivals and domestic tourists within the next five years," he said.
To achieve this goal, the president said the country would, amongst other initiatives, be developing local tourism offerings in areas such as township tourism, rural tourism, agri tourism and homestays, which will offer tourists a diverse South African experience.
That plan, however, begs the question: Are international travelers really looking for more diverse tourism experiences or are they perfectly content with more "traditional" safari experience?
Industry players across the U.S., specializing in travel to South Africa, agree that although safaris will remain high on top of the agenda, the U.S. traveler is increasingly looking for a more "diversified" experience.
"Now more than ever, clients are looking to be transformed by their experiences in a destination, and Africa is a place that allows guests to be totally immersed and forever changed. South Africa in particular is the perfect introduction to the diversity that Africa has to offer, with a variety of local experiences to create the ultimate holiday," said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel.
Banda explained that although the experience that tops the list is still the safari experience, travelers are increasingly looking for unique experience that will make their trips even more memorable. Therefore, having local, genuine interactions with indigenous cultures is also something that has started to top the bucket lists for U.S. travelers.
"The routine game drive in the morning and afternoon is no longer sufficient," said Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, pointing out that U.S. travelers have indeed indicated they want more diverse experiences when visiting Africa. "They are looking for interactive experiences, such as visits to conservation projects and cultural exchange visits. They want to learn and understand what makes South Africa different."
Experiences high on the list for U.S. travelers, according to Holden, are active vacations in places such as Cape Town where clients can hike, mountain bike, sea kayak, interact with local communities in places such as farmers' markets and get off the beaten track to places like Zululand — home Hluhluwe-Umfolozito, Africa's oldest national park — instead of the routine itinerary of Cape Town and Kruger National Park.
"Americans are learning that South Africa has so much more to offer than the regular cookie-cutter tour options that have been so highly publicized over the past 40 years," said Marguerite Smit, Travel Beyond consultant, explaining that one of the reasons U.S. travelers are increasingly looking to diversify their Africa experience is the significant increase in multigenerational travel. She said: "Parents feel they want to add a cultural aspect to travel. They want to experience everything Africa has to offer; however, they also want to educate their children/grandchildren while traveling."
Smit added that Americans have always had interest in the "giving back" aspect associated with volunteering opportunities but don't always have the time to dedicate to these types of trips. She said: "Having access to a community where travelers can quickly be immersed into a culture while maintaining all the other aspects of a great vacation seems to strike a chord with the American traveler. South Africa is one of the few African countries that can easily combine metropolitan city touring, historic sites, culture, game viewing and beach extensions without breaking the bank."
U.S. travelers are not easily placated with "tourist traps" anymore, either, and are looking for authenticity, according to many operators.
"As clients are becoming more and more educated on conservation, they tend to shy away from activities like walking with big cats and elephant-back safari and focus more on experiencing nature in its truest form," Smit said. "Experiencing areas like desolation valley, where you are faced with sheer cliffs and precariously balanced columns of dolerite that rise more than [300 feet] from the valley floor, framed by a timeless backdrop of vast Karoo plains, leaves a much more lasting impression."
Homestays are slowly becoming more popular in the country, according to Smit. "My clients often dine in the home of renowned chef and food blogger Nina Timm. She welcomes clients into her home where she prepares a six-course meal with wine pairing, and her very talented family entertain guests with musical performances," she said. "This gives the American traveler a window into the regular life of a South African family, while breaking bread."
The key element for travel agents in the U.S., according to Smit, is to educate travelers about everything else South Africa has to offer, over and above the run-of-the-mill Cape Town and safari-based experience. "Americans are willing to take more risk by exploring off-the-beaten-path areas like the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The American traveler is finally waking up to the possibilities outside of the box," she said. "From a South African perspective, this is a very exciting time for tourism development in the country; the possibilities are truly endless."