Africa’s largest travel trade show breaks records in attendance and looks toward the future

By: By Anne Burke

Meluleki Tours

If you’re looking for a genial and knowledgeable tour guide in the Durban area, you won’t do better than Mark Mgobhozi of Meluleki Tours. When it comes to Durban and the Zulu scene, Mgobhozi, a Zulu himself, knows everyone and everything. Mgobhozi can suggest many itineraries but he especially recommends the KwaZulu-Natal battlefield experience at Drakensberg.

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Travel agents interested in becoming experts on South Africa should check out South African Tourism’s destination specialist training at Travel agents who complete a self-study course are included in an online list of experts.

Africa's INDABA Trade Show is held in the coastal city of Durban
Africa's INDABA Trade Show
is held in the coastal city of Durban

This was a first for me. Wandering the aisles at INDABA, Africa’s largest travel trade show, I came across a thatched-roofed booth with a man inside wearing little more than a broad smile, an animal-skin apron and frilly goatskin bands on his legs. I asked for some info but barely had the words left my mouth than he sprang into the aisle and crouched low into Zulu warrior stance, performing a series of leg kicks that would put a Rockette to shame, all while making warrior noises and vigorously shaking a long stick. Afterward, this bare-chested dynamo returned to his chair and handed over a business card, informing me that he was Soka Mthembu, marketing manager for Simunye Zulu Lodge in KwaZulu Natal province.

That’s how things are done at INDABA, one of the most exciting and action-packed travel shows you’ll find anywhere. Don’t expect a lot of buttoned-up hotel keepers reciting worn-out spiels and doling out free pens. What you’ll get, instead, are South Africans in spectacular tribal garb breaking into dance at the slightest excuse, khaki-clad safari leaders telling eye-widening tales of close-up encounters with wild animals and, everywhere, the hypnotic beat of African drums.

INDABA 2008, which was recently held in the coastal city of Durban, attracted more than 12,900 delegates, breaking last year’s record of 12,340. While perennial offerings such as exotic safaris and pampered hotel stays were well on display here, what INDABA was really about this year was building momentum for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which will take place June 11 to July 11, 2010 at nine South Africa host cities.

The quadrennial soccer fest will mark the World Cup’s debut on African soil. While the tourney is still nearly two years away, there is no way to overstate the excitement that has already seized this tip-of-the-continent country. A massive billboard outside the Albert Luthuli Convention Centre in Durban counted off the days remaining to kick off. Inside the sprawling pavilions at the convention center, legions of South Africa tourism reps bopped around in green and yellow soccer jerseys in honor of the country’s national squad.

With the month-long tourney is expected to draw 350,000 to 450,000 visitors and an aggregate TV audience in the billions, South Africa sees the World Cup as a golden opportunity to show off its post-apartheid self as it seeks to become one of the world’s top, long-haul travel destinations. Tourism here has soared since Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, but the country is aiming to boost foreign arrivals even higher — up to 10 million in 2010 and 15 million in 2014. Much of the growth is expected to come from the United States, the second biggest market for international arrivals in South Africa.

Moeketsi Mosola, South African Tourism chief executive, told reporters at INDABA that Americans are visiting South Africa in greater numbers each year partly due to the strength of the U.S. dollar against the South African rand, but also because Americans perceive South Africa as a “friendly” country in which English is widely spoken, the medical care is excellent and the tap water is drinkable, said

ASTA gave South Africa a big vote of confidence earlier this year when it tapped the country to host its fourth annual International Destination Expo. Slated for Sun City from March 8-11, 2009, the event will feature four days of education and networking and a two-day pre- or post-tour. Attendees may add a second, two-day tour into one of South Africa’s nine provinces for an additional $150.

While the popularity of soccer in the United States lags far behind Europe and Latin America, Sugen Pillay, South African Tourism’s global manager for events, nonetheless expects a significant number of Americans for the 2010 tourney. Many may arrive ticketless just to soak up the vibe or to try to score tickets once on the ground, Pillay said.

Regardless of which country they come from, South Africa is hoping that soccer fans take in the sights beyond the World Cup’s nine host cities.

Mosola suggests the once-in-a-lifetime combo of World Cup soccer and safari: “You wake up in morning at a game reserve, fly into Johannesburg to watch a game, and you’re back in the bush by seven or eight p.m.,” he said.

As part of its general marketing strategy, South Africa is reshaping its image from that of a high-end destination for the grey-haired set that have paid off the mortgage and put the kids through college into that of a luxurious but affordable vacation choice for the whole family. To drive home the point, South African Airways Vacations is offering a $1,999 package that includes roundtrip air from New York or Washington, four nights in a five-star hotel in Capetown, two nights at a private game reserve, domestic flights and some meals.

Mark Cavalier, South African Airways executive vice president for North America, said the airlines’ bookings are unusually high this year, presumably because many Americans are choosing South Africa over Europe due to the favorable exchange rate.

“You can go into a very nice restaurant, order a nice dinner (for two) with an attractive bottle of wine and you’re hard pressed to spend $50 or $60,” Cavalier said.

Still, South Africa is a long haul for U.S. visitors. The shortest flight time is South African Airways’ 17-hour nonstop from Washington Dulles to Johannesburg. The airline’s JFK to Johannesburg flight is somewhat longer because it involves a stop in Dakar, Senegal. Delta’s recently launched JFK flight to Capetown generally involves two stops.

South African Airways, for its part, is trying to smooth the journey. In business class, seats recline to a true flat position (as opposed to seats that lie flat but at an angle), Cavalier said. Economy seats have a 34-inch pitch (2 inches more than most competitors). In economy, seats are configured so that a passenger never has to climb over more than one person to get to the aisle.