Savvy travellers, who choose the right time of year, and perhaps lesser-known but just as good destinations, are lapping up the opportunity to experience South Africa’s “world in one country” at an impressive discount.
While the global economic downturn of the past few years put a dampener on international travel, those who stayed closer to home for their vacations are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and, thanks to the weak rand, they’re heading in their droves down that tunnel straight towards sunny South Africa!
The promise of an international tourism boost from South Africa’s hugely successful hosting of the Soccer World Cup in 2010 has been realised as visitor numbers have grown steadily ever since. That growth is now spiking upwards, boosted by the rand having lost so much of its value.
In the country’s Eastern Cape province, luxury game reserves are seeing increased numbers of visitors particularly from North America & Europe mapping out itineraries that maximise South Africa’s advantages of great value together with diverse experiences. From the Cape winelands, Robben Island, Table Mountain, history and seaside splendour of Cape Town – placed by the New York Times at the“No. 1 place to visit in 2014”–they’re heading along the scenic Garden Route for a Big 5 luxury safari experience in a malaria-free area.
The beauty of this route (Cape Town-Garden Route-Safari) is that it can be done in either direction with an easy self-drive along the coast, with a mid-way stop-over in any number of scenic small towns, at unbelievable prices (a 10-night itinerary spending 4 nights in Cape Town, 3 nights on the Garden Route and 3 nights on safari, including car hire and meals, will cost approximately US$1100/GBP650between May and August 2014). For those who prefer not to drive in an unfamiliar country, there are chauffeur-drive and shuttle options, or flights spanning the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
Adding to South Africa’s value proposition is that all costs are in rands, rather than the US dollars preferred by many other African countries. This means that, whilst South Africa has become cheaper due to its weakened currency, prices in neighbouring African countries like Botswana and Zambia have remained the same.
A quick shop around on prices reveals that the same bottle of red wine on a London menu at £25 (R450) is no more than £8 (R150) on a local restaurant’s wine list. A pint of beer that costs US$6 (R65) in New York will set the tourist back around a US$1.75 (R20) in a trendy Cape Town pub! For the price of a meal in one of London’s celebrity chef restaurants (£40-£50, or R720-R900, without drinks), tourists can indulge in a multi-course wine-paired dinner at a top winelands restaurant in the Cape. For South Africa, that’s really the top end of the scale and there are plenty of excellent restaurants where dinner and wine will make a much smaller dent in the tourist’s wallet.
And travellers are making the most of that extra value – latest figures from South African Tourism, the country’s official marketer, show that foreign tourists are spending on average two days longer in South Africa than they used to 3 years ago. Due to the rand’s devaluation, these “extra” two days are essentially for free because the tourists are spending the same amount of dollars or pounds as they used to 3 years ago.
Port Elizabeth, 750km from Cape Town and location of the main airport accessing the Eastern Cape and the Garden Route, is seeing increasing numbers of foreign visitors, according to the CEO of Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.
An hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, Lalibela Game Reserve founder Rick Van Zyl (pronounced “fun-sail”)echoes this, noting a marked increase in bookings from Europe, the UK and North America over the past year.
“Most travellers to Africa and South Africa are looking for a safari experience and we have benefited greatly from the increased numbers of visitors to Cape Town. We are a short hop down the coast and a logical choice for travellers who want to avoid malaria areas,” he said.
The route between Cape Town and the Eastern Cape offers a huge variety of interesting diversions and adventurous excursions, he said, from the coastline with its thickly-forested mountains, wild seas and picturesque towns, to the arty communities, fruit orchards and history-laden quirky villages of the dusty Karoo. Along the way, there are tree-top forest canopy tours, the world’s highest commercial bridge bungy jump, boutique wine farms and historical sites related to South Africa’s frontier wars and colonial-era settlers to explore.
“More than 90% of our foreign visitors combine a visit to the Cape with a safari experience in this way,” says Van Zyl, and a quick chat to guests at Lalibela bears this out.
At the tail-end of their first visit to South Africa, retired school teacher Margaret Campbell and school inspector husband David, from Stirling in Scotland, said their only regret was booking for only two weeks. “We thought two weeks would be more than enough, but there’s so much more we still want to see and do, we’ll have to come back. The rand might not be great for South Africans but it’s great for us – we can easily afford to come back,” she said.
Dubai-based UK engineer Harry Jones, 55, said his 10 days in South Africa had been “literally a world of experiences”.
“We loved the winelands and now here at Lalibela with the natural landscape and all the game, it has been a total African experience. And compared to what we would pay back home, the value is unbelievable,” he said.
Twenty-something Australians Dylan Taylor and fiancée Alison Smith were on a scouting trip for wedding venues, as South African-born Smith’s family are still mostly in the country. “It’s been amazing to see ‘my’ country through Dylan’s eyes,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to introducing the rest of our Australian family to all the experiences in South Africa. Apart from my family being South African, we want to get married here because it will be an experience like no other – a great holiday for everyone, and the best place to explore on honeymoon,” she said.
All complimented their experience at Lalibela for the warm Eastern Cape hospitality as much as the abundant game-viewing experiences. Similarly, South African Tourism’s research shows that almost 60% of visitors in 2013 said their most positive experience of the country was the “hospitality and friendly people”, closely followed by good infrastructure and service, beautiful scenery, value for money and diverse experiences.