Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

The recent visit of former U.S. president Barack Obama to South Africa to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela on the year of his centenary is expected to boost tourism interest in the country and the continent, particularly from the U.S. market.

"Mandela is most definitely an important drawcard for U.S. travelers. The recent visit of President Obama to South Africa to speak on Mandela's birthday was widely publicized here in the U.S.," said Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris.

Obama delivered the key lecture in Johannesburg during an event to celebrate what would have been Mandela's 100th birthday.

The occasion of Mandela's centenary has prompted tour operators to put together specialized Mandela-themed packages for 2018, while the country has unveiled several landmarks and statues in the former leader's honor and Richard Branson even named a plane after the man known to South Africaners as Madiba.

South African Tourism also launched a tourism initiative around 100 Madiba experiences. The initiative promotes travel and tourism through Mandela's Legacy: 100 sites across the country and in all nine provinces that relate or connect to Mandela's legacy have been identified. Travelers can download the Madiba Journey app to discover these worthwhile destinations.

A statue of Nelson Mandela in Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
A statue of Nelson Mandela in Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

Tour operators explain, however, that Mandela's legacy is seldom the main reason U.S. travelers visit South Africa; rather, it complements a wildlife or cultural itinerary to the country.

Kayla Torgerson, Travel Beyond Consultant, said that although Mandela isn't usually the first reason clients want to visit South Africa, he often comes up in conversation during the planning process.  "Almost every traveler visiting Southern Africa will stay in Johannesburg and/or Cape Town at some point during their trip," she said. "Sometimes they will ask about apartheid history or Mandela, but when they don't, I bring it up as often as possible."

Torgerson said she feels it's partly the responsibility of the travel consultant to talk about a country's history with clients. She said: "I believe that if my South Africa clients understand the country's history, even on a basic level, it will enhance their experience. Not only will they have a better grasp of why the cultural climate is the way it is today, but they'll also ask more informed questions while in the country and hopefully come back with a broader worldview. In my opinion, traveling is one of the best forms of education; I always return from a place knowing more than when I left home. I notice my clients often feel the same way."

Darren Humphreys, Travel Sommelier and Safari Pros member, added that there is often a deep and abiding passion among U.S. travelers to learn. "For adults this is an opportunity to understand the life and times of a global icon who was likely leading one of the most significant struggles during their lifetimes. For children this is a chance to learn lessons of forgiveness, humility and nation building," he said.

According to Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel Inc., many U.S. travelers are interested in how Mandela advanced the principles of ubuntu through his political and philanthropic efforts. He said: "They want to learn about South African's history and culture as it has progressed down the "road to freedom."

The desire to learn isn't exclusive to South Africa vacations. Jon Grutzner, president of Luxury Gold, said Americans are increasingly seeking inspiration for travel from stories about individuals who have changed the course of history in different parts of the world, such as Mandela. He said: "As South Africa's most famous citizen, Americans are keen to visit places that Mandela lived and worked, as this adds an extra dimension to their travels and provides cultural and historical context to the destination."

Sandra Collier, Africa Dynamics and a Safari Pros member, agreed but explained that some clients will have a very deep interest in Mandela while others are only mildly interested. According to Collier, most clients are much more enthusiastic once they have visited the sites.

Mostly, travelers tend to stick to the Mandela attractions that are situated close to other highlights of their trip.

Sunit Sanghrajka, Alluring Africa and chairman of Safari Pros, said that because most people don't travel solely for Mandela attractions, they'll look for attractions close to Cape Town, Johannesburg or the private game lodges in Mpumalanga. "They visit Mandela attractions such as Robben Island, District 6, Khayelitsha, Soweto, the Apartheid Museum and Liliesleaf Farm."

Holden agreed and said that most Americans visiting Africa are taking a safari to see Africa's wildlife. As part of their safari, history and culture are often also included, with a visit to Robben Island when in Cape Town. In Johannesburg, when entering or leaving South Africa, those interested in culture and history will visit Mandela's house in Soweto and sometimes Liliesleaf Farm.

With no significant wildlife attractions or well-used point of entry into and out of South Africa nearby, not many Americans visit other worthwhile attractions, such as the cleverly designed Nelson Mandela sculpture at Howick in KwaZulu Natal, according to Holden. Similarly, not many Americans visit Mandela's birthplace at Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

According to Humphreys, this is a pity as Mandela's grave in Qunu, for example, is a real enclave in the Eastern Cape. He says: "It is home to a must-visit museum, and an ideal addendum to this is a Big 5 safari in a regional, malaria-free reserve like Kwandwe. In Johannesburg, in addition to the cornerstone Mandela attractions like Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, a Soweto tour and Lilliesleaf Farm the opportunity exists for further education about South Africa's earlier history, including the world-renowned Cradle of Humankind."

For Torgerson, there isn't one attraction that is most important to Mandela history. She said: "If travelers have the time, I highly recommend reading about Mandela and his legacy before they travel. Then whether they visit Robben Island in Cape Town or the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, they will enter the experience with a better sense of the magnitude of the place and Nelson Mandela's lasting influence on South Africa."

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