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Cape Town Shines Warmly On South Africa's Tourism Sector Amid Tough Economic Times

posted 2 Mar 2014, 12:08 by Mpelembe   [ updated 2 Mar 2014, 12:09 ]

Cape Town was voted the top tourism destination for 2014 by the New York Times, the UK Guardian, Conde Nast and Lonely Planet. Sometimes outperforming traditional drivers of economic growth such as mining and manufacturing in the face of economic woes, South African authorities hope tourism, a key foreign currency earner, can seize the day.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA  (REUTERS) -  Few destinations in the world have the physical beauty and historic appeal that Cape Town offers. Renowned for its scenic beauty, perfect summers and culture, it was named top tourism destination by various international publications including the New York Times and the Guardian UK.

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Robben Island, where former president Nelson Mandela spent a large part of his 27 years in jail during the struggle to overturn white-minority rule and Table Mountain have cemented Cape Town's position as South Africa's undisputed tourism capital, with visitors to the 'Mother City' spending 15 billion rand in 2012, up from 12.4 billion in 2009.

Officials say tourist arrivals on the island have soared since the revered statesman died in December at the age of 95, triggering a wave of international goodwill for the country he led as the first black president from 1994 to 1999.

"I think tourism has always been a major industry. Both on the domestic side and international side, and you need to look at international through the lenses of leisure and luxury. But I think really what's happened is South Africa opened up to the world in 1994, there was a sense of intrigue. People started coming here, saw that its a destination rich in attractions, friendly, safe and good value," said Nils Flaaten, CEO of Westgro the marketing and promotion agency for the western cape.

South African policymakers have watched in horror as the rand has plunged against the dollar over the last year, bringing inflation and higher interest rates, but the tourism industry is happily raking in the extra dollars.

With most sectors struggling to grow after a 2009 recession, tourism has stood out as a rare bright spot, as the weaker rand makes it cheaper for visitors, mostly from Europe, to come and soak up the African sun.

Cape Town tourism CEO, Enver Duminy says to keep the momentum going, the city collaborated with industry stakeholders to ensure new markets were developed, offering everything from kite surfing, a visit to the wine lands or diving with great white sharks to trips to eating curry on the Malay Quarter.

"There's been this collaboration. It wasn't just where the city says okay we need to do something that focuses on citizens only. It isn't where an industry stood one side saying well city do stuff for us. Its where the city and the tourism industry came together and Cape Town tourism was formed," he said.

The post card image of Cape Town exists alongside a less prosperous reality.

Khayelitsha - Cape Town's largest black township is home to 750,000 people that live in a squalid sea of shacks - unnumbered homes on nameless streets that are perfect for criminals, and a nightmare for police.

In between the sea front and the townships lies vibrant but gritty downtown neighbourhoods where art and culture thrive.

"Cape Town has so many layers to it and there are so many different parts to it that makes it appealing to different audiences. And I think that's an important thing. It's not just a leisure destination. There's a business side to it, there's a thriving urban culture. There's a shifting in peoples behaviours and what they want. And as Cape Town tourism we recognise each of these different types of customers, and understanding what they want when they want it , and also at which price point," said Duminy.

Most sightseers are from Britain, the United States and mainland Europe, although the old patterns are starting to change, with increased number of toursists from the East.

"It's so lovely, the people here are so friendly and have welcomed us so well. We've been travelling around Cape Town, visiting Table mountain, Robben Island. Been on safari, been in townships and been singing with the local people at a school. And it's been, it's just amazing," said Hanne Vabo, a Norwegian tourist.

"It's not so expensive as in Europe where we live. So the price did not have really an impact to our place we chose," said Antonio Parenti, an Italian tourist.

The most dramatic shift is a tripling since 2009 in visitor numbers from China, which pipped France into fourth place last year as a source of tourists to South Africa.

Arrivals from other emerging markets are also growing fast, in part because they withstood the global financial and economic crisis better than the 'old world', officials say.

"People became aware of the industry and our destination marketing started to bite. We started building up good traction in our traditional markets which are typically Europe , the United Kingdomthe NetherlandsGermany and France. But then we started reaching out to new markets. And we've started in the last 2 years to see a lot of traction with tourist arrivals coming from China, coming from India. And I think going forward the Gulf States is going to be a great opportunity for us," said Flaaten.

Tourism supports one in 12 jobs in South Africa, and the government hopes it will increase its contribution to the economy to nearly 500 billion rand by the end of the decade, creating 225,000 new jobs in a country plagued by 25 percent unemployment.