South Africa's biggest tourism gems revealed

More than 10 million visitors arrived in South Africa last year, helping the tourism sector contribute 9% to the country’s gross domestic product and providing 9.5% of all jobs.

That equates to a tourism trade worth more than R400 billion – an awful lot of money but, at the same time, there’s also an awful lot of competition.

Margie Whitehouse, chief marketing officer for SA Tourism, said there were more than 26 000 tourism products or services on the national database, but pointed out these were only the registered services.

At Africa’s Travel Indaba this week more than 1 000 exhibitors set up stalls in Durban’s Internation Convention Centre’s vast halls.

They were jostling for the attention of a similar number of trade buyers – the people who do the bookings and often bring in international business.

So how, among all the clamour and competition, do the small operators get a look-in?

Tourism SA has a dedicated area at the indaba for its Hidden Gems, a three-year business-development programme it hopes will provide part of the answer.

“Travellers are always looking for new and exciting products. And we are looking to find new products across the country to really grow the market,” said Whitehouse.

She said there were 139 gems from the nine provinces at the indaba, up by 50% on last year.

So plenty of gems, but which ones really sparkle?


Tourism through compelling stories

There is no shortage of township tours in South Africa but Mbali Zwane, a livewire single mother, said she is able to stand out from the crowd by bringing a little music and some theatre and audience participation to her walking tours.

Zwane’s Eyitha Tours concentrates on Sophiatown.

She reckons that’s a smart move because even though Soweto gets the lion’s share of the township tourism market, there’s a compelling story to tell in the conveniently central inner-Johannesburg district. And far less competition, too.

Zwane uses social media to hook in tourists and then starts her tour at a Sophia park where information boards detail the history and personalities of the area.

She tells how Sophiatown sprang up in 1897, developed into a lively, mixed-race community before being gutted by apartheid-era forced removals.

So far, fairly familiar, at least to South Africans.

But then, as she starts explaining to her audience of foreign tourists how Sophiatown practically gave birth to township jazz, reeling off the big names as she goes – Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Thandi Klaasen, out steps singer Thokozile Ndabane. On cue Ndabane belts out the Klaasen hit, Lagu Shona Langa.

“Oh, she can sing,” said Zwane.

Now the tourists are really paying attention. They feed off her enthusiasm for the place and its memories.

The tour passes Christ the King Anglican Church where anti-apartheid cleric Trevor Huddleston’s ashes are buried, passes the famous fafi corner where women used to gamble.

Zwane stops along the way to recite a poem.

At Good Street, site of Odin Cinema, where Nelson Mandela once gave a speech, her son Sihle (14) plays the great man.

There’s lunch, a home visit and, to cap it all, the tourists learn Zwane’s special Eyitha dance – “it’s so nice”.

“Never give,” says Zwane. “You have to try to be unique.”

Riding high on the tourism ecotrail

Sibusiso Mvulane of Leratong Tourism runs an ecotourism business specialising in guided horse-riding tours and hiking near Phuthaditjhaba.

His business, which has been going for three years, takes local and Gauteng tourists and school groups horse riding in the rugged Maloti-Drakensberg and into Lesotho.

Many of the children have never ridden a horse before and Mvulane gets a kick out of introducing them to the pastime.

“It’s always the nicest part. Next they don’t want to come down.”

He said it was wonderful to show children there were other things they could do in the district.

Tours range from a few hours to overnight trips. Mvulane said through his contacts he can get up to 30 horses together for a tour – all of them well schooled.

Tours usually include a visit to Mothiane Spices where guests can sample locally produced prickly pear juice and the soothing properties of lemon verbena tea and rosehip juice.

Mvulane has big plans for Tourism Month and Heritage Day in September with fun events and rides for Phuthaditjhaba children.

Flying over Soweto

Things are taking off for aviation tourism company owners Wiseman Ntombela and Bridget Nthite.

Fly SA Wise is in the Soweto township and offers visitors an aerial perspective of the country’s biggest township.

Ntombela said he was sitting in a restaurant on Vilakazi Street, in Orlando West, nine years ago, watching all the tourists, who had come to check out the homes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when the idea for the business came to him.

He said it occurred to him that many foreigners did not know what to expect when they arrived at the late statesman’s home. Some expected a grand place befitting Mandela’s status. Instead they found the tiny brick cottage at number 8115.

It does not take a long time to look over whereas viewing the whole township would be a lengthy and time-consuming proposition.

Ntombela, a marketing man by profession, hit on helicopter flips. “Immediately you get up, you see the whole of Soweto,” he said.

And it looks different.

“When you see the FNB stadium you see it from the top. When you see the Orlando towers, you see inside them,” he said referring to the beautifully decorated old power station cooling towers. It proved a winning formula and when Fly SA Wise was able to get offices on Vilakazi Street, business started to soar.

Ntombela and Nthite have now expanded beyond the foreign tourism market.

It soon became apparent that there was strong local interest in seeing the township from the sky, and flying generally.

The company charters helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and now offers flights to other attractions in Gauteng and further afield, including the Kruger Park, Victoria Falls and the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu.

Flights are available for weddings, corporate and other events.

The partners signed a three-year deal with the Gauteng Education Department last year to run a programme to introduce schoolchildren to flying and career opportunitiesin aviation.

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