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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
said most Americans do not realize that as a center of maritime
trade for centuries, Cape Town evolved into a sophisticated
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
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
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.
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
indigenous development was fundamentally different from that of the
Western world, its influence on world culture has been
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."
Lutzeyer, the South African owner of the resort and nature preserve
Grootbos in South Africa put it, "Music is in the African
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
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."
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
"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
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.
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
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].