- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa’s tourist industry is on a roll. Record numbers of visitors streamed in last year, and the future looks even rosier.

Small wonder. The country has prolific wildlife, stunning scenery, endless beaches, a great climate and rich cultural traditions.

Its people are refreshingly friendly. It’s relatively cheap, and — in a world scarred by terrorism — it has remained mercifully free of attacks.

The country that withdrew into itself — and was shunned — during the apartheid-era isolation has thrown open its doors to the rest of the world with pride.

In 1994, the year of South Africa’s first democratic election, the country welcomed 3 million foreign visitors. Last year, about 7.4 million tourists arrived, including about 1.3 million Europeans and 275,000 North Americans.

Tourist numbers are expected to explode with the hosting of the World Cup soccer finals in 2010. The tourist industry has outperformed all other sectors of the economy and is overtaking gold-mining as a top earner.

“Tourism is our gold,” said Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the opening of an annual tourism convention in Durban in May. “We have to nurture it and make our country a must to see by every traveler.”

Many visitors are lured by the fabulous wildlife in the Kruger National Park, most famous for the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) but also much loved among bird lovers for the amazing variety of feathered friends.

Park rangers offer guided walks — my husband had a close encounter with a couple of rhinos and learned how to tell the freshness of elephant dung — and night drives, which offer the best opportunity to see more elusive animals, such as leopards. We visited in winter — which is July in this hemisphere — when it’s easier to sight the animals because the vegetation is less dense.

Although the Kruger is the flagship, many game reserves are dotted all over South Africa. The private ones are pricey, but the game viewing is guaranteed. The country justifiably prides itself on its superbly maintained national parks, which often have reasonably priced accommodations in stunning settings (but book early).

One of our favorites was the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, which is classed as a World Heritage Site, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Signs in St. Lucia warn visitors to be aware of hippos wandering down the street, and they are serious — hippos cause more fatalities in humans than any other animal in South Africa. Take a boat trip down the estuary and dodge the hippos and the man-eating crocodiles.

KwaZulu-Natal has some of the best beaches — with the added advantage that the Indian Ocean waters are much warmer than the Atlantic — and it offers a cultural feast in Zulu traditions.

Johannesburg, the gritty commercial hub, is notorious for its crime but also is gaining a reputation as a vibrant, happening place. A guided tour to Soweto, the sprawling township synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement and the Apartheid Museum are a must for visitors wanting a closer insight into the country’s brutal past.

At Maropeng, the state-of-the-art visitors center at South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, visitors can explore the journey of the Earth and humankind from its beginnings to the present day. It offers a boat ride on an underground lake, exploring the different forms of water.

From there, the visitor walks down an underground spine, exploring through interactive displays the discovery of fire, extinction and DNA, among other topics.

The undisputed jewel in the tourism crown is Cape Town. The Mother City, as it is known, has more of a European than African feel to it. In contrast to the stress and buzz of Johannesburg, Cape Town is the place to chill.

The Victoria and Albert Waterfront development is one of the country’s top attractions, combining restaurants, shopping malls, boat trips — including visits to Nelson Mandela’s former prison on Robben Island — and other attractions, such as a world-class aquarium that offers its members periodic sleepovers by the shark tank.

Beach bums should head for the gleaming white beaches of Camps Bay and Clifton — the places to see and be seen, although not to swim, as the water is icy.

The whale-watching is awesome in the cute seaside village of Hermanus in the June-to-October period when the Southern right whales leave the Antarctic waters and come to feed and breed in the cape waters. Don’t bother with the expense of a boat trip; the huge mammals can be seen just as well from shore.

If you prefer penguins, head to Boulders Beach near the naval base of Simons Town. It can get a bit smelly depending on the wind direction, but the water is warm enough for you to swim with the birds, and the small beach is protected from the strong winds that often lash the coastline, especially near Cape Point.

A stunning alternative to the sea is the hilly wine route from Cape Town to the ostrich center of Ougtshoorn, where you can ride on the feathered beasts, stand on their eggs (which are the size of 24 hens’ eggs and take two hours to boil) and feast on the meat.

Engraved ostrich eggs are popular as souvenirs, as is woodwork — including the ubiquitous large giraffe. Bowls, lamps and animals made out of tiny glass beads are exquisite. The South Africans are masters of recycling, and you can buy radios — which work — and bags made out of soft-drink cans, as well as a huge variety of ingenious creations with wire. Haggle over the price.

True, there is a downside. Crime and muggings are far higher than in most other countries, and hapless tourists are easy targets. It is hard to escape the poverty that remains rampant, but the government says it is determined to do all it takes to entice more visitors.

“Our quest is to reach out to all potential customers,” Mr. Mlambo-Ngcuka told the tourism convention. “Our growth plans are aimed at building a market among young travelers needing affordable packages, young adults and families, business travelers and the upmarket clientele which needs to be spoilt with dream holidays with exclusive packages that are simply unforgettable and only found in South Africa.”

For more information on South Africa, visit www.southafrica.net or call 800/593-1318.

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