Today, a mention of South Africa conjures images of penguins waddling along gleaming white beaches, the Big Five roaming through Kruger National Park, rolling vineyards, and Table Mountain. But as recently as 30 years ago, few international visitors experienced these charms.
From 1948 to 1991, South Africa was governed by the brutally oppressive apartheid system, which segregated the country’s races and ensured power and wealth was mostly enjoyed by the white minority. By the 1980s, the regime was in its final throes, and worldwide pressure to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela drove sanctions that limited overseas tourism. As a result, most of South Africa‘s tourism industry was made up of white domestic holidaymakers.
“The “whites only” signs are there for all to see [on the trains], and when we tried to buy third-class tickets we were refused on the ground that ‘nice people don’t travel third class’ (we are both white),” a reader wrote to the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “The South African Tourist Board is no doubt very persuasive in its offers of glamorous ‘adventure’ holidays. But Americans need not be fooled.”
“In the 80s, as a non-white person, I had no clue that an industry like tourism existed,” says Enver Mally, chairman of the board for Cape Town Tourism and director of African Eagle Day Tours, which offers immersive township experiences. “For us, it was very difficult to travel to places.”
With Mandela’s release in 1990 and the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, things changed rapidly. South African Airways resumed flights to the U.S., Australia, and parts of Europe and expanded to new markets. Suddenly, all eyes were on the nation. “Many international visitors flocked to experience the new South Africa,” says Mariette Du Toit-Helmbold, CEO of Cape Town Tourism from 2003-2013 and founder of destination-marketing agency Destinate. “Tourism numbers saw a drastic increase during the ‘post-apartheid honeymoon-phase.’”
Instead of brushing history under the rug, apartheid-era relics were transformed into museums dedicated to telling the story of South Africa’s turbulent road to democracy. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the District Six Museum in Cape Town recount personal experiences of lives affected during the regime, and former prisons were transformed into powerful museums like Constitution Hill and Robben Island, which remain major tourist destinations today. The safari industry also boomed, as more and more visitors descended to experience Kruger National Park and other game reserves.
The nation’s first push to lure leisure travelers came with the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup, which marked South Africa’s re-entry onto the global sports stage after decades of pariah status. “We started fixing our airports, hotels, and basic road infrastructure—that was the start of us capitalizing on that 15 minutes of fame,” says Enver Duminy, current CEO of Cape Town Tourism and a member of the board of South Africa Tourism.
Hoping to ride the wave of positive coverage generated by the Rugby World Cup, Cape Town put in a failed bid for the 2004 Olympics. Given the challenges the young country was facing in overcoming the legacy of apartheid, there was rightfully much criticism over what many perceived as the government prioritizing investments in stadium and athletes over housing, education, and infrastructure. “That for us was also a realization that we had a long way to go,” says Duminy.
Sports eventually brought South Africa to the forefront again, in the form of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “That became the tipping point for South Africa as being seen as a global destination,” says Duminy. “The time was right for the destination to put its best face forward. We were in the households of millions of viewers who may have had the perception of South Africa having lions roaming around.”
The country still reaps post-World Cup benefits: improvements in roads, airports, and safety and security have transformed South Africa into a blue-chip destination. The country welcomed 10.8 million international tourists between May 2016 and May 2017—in 1988, by contrast, the county saw less than 400,000 foreign visitors. Today, tourism is the nation’s fastest-growing sector, for the first time in history surpassing mining as the biggest contributor to South Africa‘s GDP. Cape Town alone drew 1.7 million tourists between July 2016 and June 2017. Tourism boards have also been savvy about targeting new methods and markets. “It is no longer about the destination or your unique selling points; it is about the story,” says Du Toit-Helmbold. “Our story is a complex one and is best told through local people.”
South Africa continues to leverage its international spotlight by luring visitors with a diverse mix of offerings. The nation is home to a some of the continent’s top luxury safari lodges, with a strong focus on conservation; the revitalization of Johannesburg’s Central Business District is bringing visitors back to areas that were once a hotbed for crime; the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in a Thomas Heatherwick-designed building in Cape Town is a boon for the continent’s art community; and local chefs like Luke Dale-Roberts, whose Test Kitchen consistently makes appearances on world’s best lists, are at the forefront of a vibrant culinary scene.
There’s still much work to be done—South Africa is still deeply segregated and racked with economic and political dysfunction, and the tourism industry can often seem like a sterilized bubble existing in an alternate reality to the rest of the country. But considering where things were just three short decades ago, it’s worth marveling over how far the country has come.
“When I started at Cape Town Tourism, it made sense what my purpose is, being in a new South Africa,” says Duminy. “I can play a pivotal role in showing transformation, in changing the narrative of the destination.”