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Ebrahim Rasool, Marthinus van Schalkwyk & Thulani Nzima

Recently South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool, Minister of Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk and South Africa Tourism CEO Thulani Nzima visited New York.

Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan was part of a private press luncheon where the trio discussed why South Africa is more than safaris and why the African continent is a good place for elite travelers to look for investment opportunities. (pictured L to R: Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool, Minister of Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk & South Africa Tourism CEO Thulani Nzima.)

ET: How’s business?

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: Our very good news is we continue to outperform all of our competitors. From the U.S. we have had growth on growth. We grew in 2010 by 23 percent with the World Cup and then on top of that had 1.9 percent growth from the U.S. in 2011.

CEO Thulani Nzima: We were able to take advantage of the World Cup (football). Immediately after we had a strong marketing program to capitalize on the investment. It wasn’t an accident we saw growth.

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: Some countries are moving away from traditional markets. We have seen strong growth in developing markets, too. China is up 24 percent, India is up 26 percent. However, there are certain traditional markets such as the United States we can continue to grow both in visitors and yield. America is the second biggest market for South Africa after the United Kingdom and ahead of Germany. (Our results here) gives us the confidence to invest in this market, defend against other destinations and aim for growth.

ET: Is the image of South Africa and Africa changing?

Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool: A few years ago Africa would have been an afterthought, a story told by its troubles instead of opportunities. Africa is becoming a destination of choice not only for tourism but trade and investment. Africa has the third fastest growth rate behind India and China. Part of the salvation of the U.S. economy in the next 10 years are the business opportunities in Africa if the U.S. has the courage to go head-to-head with China. You need to come and see. It’s been a complete change.

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: We are looking at our own continent as a growth market. There is a growing, affluent middle class. Nigeria was up 37 percent and Tanzania up 45 percent.

ET: There were some negative stories recently in The New York Times and also the publicity about the shark attack. Is this a concern?

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: When negative things happen you don’t run away. Whether South Africa, Washington D.C. or Paris there are places you go and places you don’t. Tourists vote with their feet. South Africa has a 77 percent repeat factor.

ET: Is South Africa going beyond the safari market?

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: We will continue to be about wildlife, but we are succeeding in generating a broader appeal. There is cultural heritage. There is the conference and convention market. We have state-of-the-art facilities in Capetown, Durban and Johannesburg.

CEO Thulani Nzima: We have a lot more to offer beyond safaris. There is adventure tourism, the wine routes are now well known, there is township tourism where you can interact, there are more opportunities in heritage and culture tourism. We are good at staging big events, the Soccer World Cup being a good example.

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: There are also real African experiences that are underexplored for conferences. Liliesleaf is a good example. It was a farm that holds a position of esteem among struggle landmarks in South Africa. It was headquarters for the ANC and Congress Alliance. It now has an amazing conference center in the middle of all of that history. At Kruger National Park a number of the concessionaires have conference facilities, so you are able to have a meeting in the center of the wildlife. Natal Midlands would be a third example.

Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool: There’s a niche for medical tourism. There has been interest from evangelical groups. Political tourism is rising and 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of our democracy.

ET: And the government seems to be giving tourism priority?

Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool: The Minister has created a national tourism strategy. Clearly tourism counteracts poverty.

Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk: (Tourism) contributes 9 percent of global GDP and every day one in 12 people who go to work go to work in this sector. A key is making it easier for people to travel. In 1950 there were 25 million international arrivals. This year in November we will top 1 billion in international arrivals annually for the first time. It took 62 years to get there and in just eight years, we expect to be at 1.6 billion international arrivals. There’s clearly a threat (to growth) many governments don’t understand the global nature of tourism, and there is a growing patchwork of taxes and cost drivers. For example, in the U.K. a family of four from London will pay 800 British Pounds in taxes to travel to a long-haul destination. We need a commitment from all the G-20 countries to go to e-Visas. We understand there is a need to also satisfy security and the U.S. is a good example of having achieved it.

ET: What’s the growth potential for South Africa’s tourism?

Panel: Our objective is 15 million annual visitors, $500 billion Rand (US $63 billion) in annual tourism receipts and to create 225,000 tourism-related jobs by 2020.