March 29, 1998

Due South The End Of Apartheid Breathes New Life Into South Africa’s Tourism Industry, And Americans Are Taking Note

Jay Clarke The Miami Herald
 

Six years ago, American travelers could look but not touch. South Africa’s spectacular coastline, its game parks, its peoples and modern cities beckoned, but most Americans considered them off-limits so long as apartheid racial laws were in effect.

Today, with apartheid out and the Nelson Mandela government in, Americans are traveling to South Africa in ever-increasing numbers — more than 100,000 last year, with 20 percent more expected in 1998. One of this year’s visiting Americans will be President Bill Clinton, who is spending several days in the country as part of his current African tour.

“I think people have always been intrigued with Africa, and particularly with South Africa,” said Julian Harrison, president of Premier Tours, a New York tour operator and consolidator. “There’s been a slow buildup of curiosity, a yearning to go see what it’s all about, and now it’s morally correct to go.”

Much of the intrigue is in seeing how the country is faring now that Mandela and the black majority are in power. Expectations were high, perhaps too high, and there is some disillusionment. “Three hundred fifty years of white rule are not going to change overnight,” said Ahmed Kathrada, an Asian who spent many years in prison with Mandela but is now a Parliament member and adviser to the president. “But with all the hiccups, I think we are making progress.”

Visiting Americans, many traveling through Miami on one of South Africa Airways’ five weekly flights to Cape Town — one of the world’s longest nonstops at 7,653 miles — would seem to agree. Said Alan Greer, a Miami attorney who visited Cape Town with his wife Pat over Christmas: “What impressed me is how hard people are working to make this new experiment work.”

American businesses that pulled out of South Africa when the United States imposed sanctions over apartheid also are returning. Six years ago, you couldn’t buy a Pepsi or a Big Mac in South Africa. Now, in ever more places, you see yellow arches and other signs of American commerce.

Blessed with sunny summer weather when Europe and the United States are in winter, Cape Town is becoming a major locale for fashion and commercial shoots. Hotel chains like Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Holiday Inn are re-entering the market, and a Hard Rock Cafe and a Planet Hollywood have opened on Cape Town’s trendy Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

Six years ago, that waterfront was merely a working harbor busy with fishing trawlers, container ships, cargo cranes and the like. Today, it’s the tourist heart of Cape Town, a scenic, cosmopolitan metropolis with much of the appeal of San Francisco.

Like Fisherman’s Wharf, Cape Town’s V&A; Waterfront throbs with tourist activity. Old warehouses have been turned into shops and cafes. The huge Victoria Wharf mall, with more than 200 restaurants and shops, serves visitors with the longest store hours in South Africa. There are sightseeing boats, an aquarium, a maritime museum, a craft market, a landing where honking seals congregate - and, of course, an IMAX theater.

The similarities go well beyond their seaports. California’s Sonoma and Napa wine valleys are short drives from the city; most of South Africa’s excellent wines come from Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, no more than an hour east of Cape Town. The coastal road from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope runs hundreds of feet above the crashing surf, much like California’s stunning Big Sur Highway.

Such magnificent scenery is a major part of South Africa’s appeal.

“I think Cape Town rivals San Francisco or Vancouver as one of the remarkable coastal towns,” said Miami attorney Murray Greenberg, who visited South Africa last year with his wife and son.

Like most visitors, Greenberg roamed over several parts of the country, but his particular highlights were seeing animals in the wild at a game reserve (“a once-in-a-lifetime experience”), touring Soweto (“I found it so very educational”) and the people (“all were lovely”).

Another visitor impressed by South Africa’s sea- and landscapes was Jon Bellfield of England.

“What surprised us the most was the country’s natural beauty,” Bellfield said. He and his wife, Xena, toured the Cape area, drove along the coastal Garden Route, rode a luxury train through the high desert between Cape Town and Johannesburg/Pretoria and spent a couple days in a game park.

But though the Bellfields found the entire trip “a fascinating experience,” the couple found some elements unsettling.

“There are beautiful sites and the infrastructure is First World, but on the outskirts of towns you see the poverty.” He was referring to the rings of makeshift shacks that circle all the larger cities.

That’s particularly true of Cape Town, which possesses one of the world’s great settings - the city sits below flat-topped Table Mountain and is bordered by scenic coves and beaches. It’s a modern and clean city in every respect, but sprawling southeast of the city are the Cape Flats, where thousands of people live in appalling conditions and where crime and gang warfare are rampant.

Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa (Pretoria is the administrative capital). It has long been a favorite cruise port of call, and the V&A; Waterfront is tourist headquarters. Visitors stroll along the quays, pausing perhaps to admire the restored landmark Clock Tower, to browse through the craft market, to search for more upscale goods at Victoria Wharf or simply to sit under an outdoor umbrella and enjoy a harbor-side al fresco lunch. Ferries to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, leave from two V&A; locales.

More and more, visitors are staying in hotels on or near the waterfront, where they can choose among several four-and five-star hotels.

What surprises many foreign visitors to Cape Town is how few black faces they see. More than 20 million people visit the V&A; Waterfront annually, yet few blacks are seen in the shops and restaurants, which are on the upscale side. Perhaps this should not be so surprising: Though South Africa has rid itself of apartheid and racial segregation, it has a long way to go before economic equality becomes more prevalent.

“The economy is still in the hands of whites. The top echelon is still white,” said Mandela aide Kathrada. “South African whites enjoy a high standard of living, but there are millions of (others) unemployed.”

These are mainly peoples from rural areas, who, with restrictions on their travel lifted, have gravitated to the big cities in hopes of improving their way of life. Poorly educated and with few marketable trades, they are virtually unemployable.

Two out-of-town excursions are de rigeuer for Cape Town visitors. One is a tour down the coast to the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The other is a visit to the wine lands east of the city.

The drive to Cape Point is one of the prettiest in South Africa. Cozy beaches are notched here and there between rocky headlands, seals sun themselves on rocky islets offshore, and you can see springbok, baboons and ostriches as you pass through the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

On the return trip to Cape Town, most tour buses stop at the Boulders in Simon’s Town to see the colony of jackass penguins that has multiplied heavily in the past few years. Another stop often is made at the Rhodes Memorial, a hillside monument dedicated to Cecil John Rhodes, the 19th century explorer and entrepreneur.

And if your interest turns to nature, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the back side of Table Mountain are well worth a visit.

About 100 varieties of grapes are cultivated in the wine country east of Cape Town, making wines that rank among the world’s best. Vineyards cover the valleys, resembling green carpets rising to the purple mountains beyond. Many wineries offer tastings, including the pinotage red, made only in South Africa.

Because the region is one of the oldest in South Africa, having been settled 400 years ago, it features beautiful old Cape Dutch and Georgian homes. Stellenbosch is a particularly attractive city, with tree-lined streets, hotels, restaurants and an interesting wine museum.

If touring Cape Town is one priority for visitors to South Africa, viewing the wildlife certainly is another. It’s a rare tourist who doesn’t include a safari in his itinerary.

All the major African animals - elephant, lion, rhinoceros, buffalo, leopard, hippopotamus and giraffe - are found in South Africa, though not around Cape Town.

Kruger National, a huge park east of Johannesburg, and the Hluhluwe Reserve, north of Durban, offer perhaps the best game viewing in the country.

“Watching lions feed on a zebra, or a leopard walk around your Land Rover, that was amazing,” said Peter Leather, a visitor from England.

He and his wife, Joyce, felt much the same way about the country itself.

“It was a great eye-opener,” said Joyce. “It gave me a lot to think about.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Getting there: South African Airways flies nonstop from both New York and Miami to Cape Town/ Johannesburg. The New York-to-South Africa route is the longest nonstop flight in the world, covers 7,981 miles and takes about 14 hours. Other airlines reach South Africa with a stop in Europe or in South America, which means two nights on airplanes. Round-trip fares of around $1,000 should be obtainable most of the time through consolidators. Packages: Many are offered, and these can cut your costs considerably. Most have optional two-or three-day extensions to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Hotels: The top hotels are priced in U.S. dollars (not rand) and can be quite expensive ($300 a day), except for their food, which is relatively inexpensive everywhere. Hotel rates become much lower away from the V&A; Waterfront. Food: Cape Town has many restaurants, particularly in the V&A; Waterfront, ranging from elegant hotel dining rooms to fast-food establishments. Traditional Cape cuisine is a spicy mix of Malay and Dutch, but one is more likely to encounter a cosmopolitan international cuisine. Seafood is excellent. Climate: As South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. Summers (December-March) can be hot and rainy, but winters (June-September) are mild. Spring (September-December) and fall (March-June) are the best seasons to visit. Ethnicity: Blacks comprise 75 percent (of whom the Zulu and Xhosa tribes comprise 40 percent); whites, 13 percent (English speakers are mainly of British descent, Afrikaans speakers are of Dutch descent); mixed races (called coloreds in apartheid days), 8.6 percent; Indian, 2.6 percent. Safety: Do not walk in urban centers at night, do not drive in rural areas after dark. Crime has become a major problem in cities, particularly Johannesburg. Wildlife: Your chances of seeing the Big Five (elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and buffalo) are good in South Africa, even on short safaris, and hippopotamus, zebra, giraffe and cheetah also can be seen. Top game parks are the world-famous Kruger National Park and Hluhluwe in KwaZulu/Natal. Information: In Cape Town, there is a tourist office in the V&A; Waterfront, with the main office downtown next to the train station. Neither is very helpful. In the United States, contact the South African Tourist Board, 500 Fifth Ave., Suite 2040, New York, NY 10110; (800) 822-5368.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Getting there: South African Airways flies nonstop from both New York and Miami to Cape Town/ Johannesburg. The New York-to-South Africa route is the longest nonstop flight in the world, covers 7,981 miles and takes about 14 hours. Other airlines reach South Africa with a stop in Europe or in South America, which means two nights on airplanes. Round-trip fares of around $1,000 should be obtainable most of the time through consolidators. Packages: Many are offered, and these can cut your costs considerably. Most have optional two-or three-day extensions to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Hotels: The top hotels are priced in U.S. dollars (not rand) and can be quite expensive ($300 a day), except for their food, which is relatively inexpensive everywhere. Hotel rates become much lower away from the V&A; Waterfront. Food: Cape Town has many restaurants, particularly in the V&A; Waterfront, ranging from elegant hotel dining rooms to fast-food establishments. Traditional Cape cuisine is a spicy mix of Malay and Dutch, but one is more likely to encounter a cosmopolitan international cuisine. Seafood is excellent. Climate: As South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. Summers (December-March) can be hot and rainy, but winters (June-September) are mild. Spring (September-December) and fall (March-June) are the best seasons to visit. Ethnicity: Blacks comprise 75 percent (of whom the Zulu and Xhosa tribes comprise 40 percent); whites, 13 percent (English speakers are mainly of British descent, Afrikaans speakers are of Dutch descent); mixed races (called coloreds in apartheid days), 8.6 percent; Indian, 2.6 percent. Safety: Do not walk in urban centers at night, do not drive in rural areas after dark. Crime has become a major problem in cities, particularly Johannesburg. Wildlife: Your chances of seeing the Big Five (elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and buffalo) are good in South Africa, even on short safaris, and hippopotamus, zebra, giraffe and cheetah also can be seen. Top game parks are the world-famous Kruger National Park and Hluhluwe in KwaZulu/Natal. Information: In Cape Town, there is a tourist office in the V&A; Waterfront, with the main office downtown next to the train station. Neither is very helpful. In the United States, contact the South African Tourist Board, 500 Fifth Ave., Suite 2040, New York, NY 10110; (800) 822-5368.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email