South Africa’s tourism sector has grown robustly since it successfully rebranded itself as a top sightseeing destination, especially among business travelers, according to visiting tourism minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk.
“Despite the economic downturn, we are outperforming other countries in the tourism industry,” Marthinus Van Schalkwyk told The Japan Times in an interview Tuesday, during a visit to this week’s World Tourism and Travel Council trade show in Sendai and Tokyo.
According to a survey released March 12 by Pretoria’s Department of Tourism, South Africa welcomed more than 8.3 million visitors last year, topping the previous record set when it hosted the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010.
Its current numbers present a stark contrast to the fewer than 500,000 it chalked up in 1994, the year its long-reviled apartheid system was abolished and Nelson Mandela elected as the nation’s first black president.
While South Africa is still struggling with a host of serious issues, especially a sky-high crime rate and the spread of HIV, its tourism sector and number of repeat visitors have held steady.
Cape Town, the country’s legislative capital, was ranked the top travel destination in a survey conducted last year by Tripadviser.com, a U.S.-based travel website, besting New York, Paris, London, Rome and Rio de Janeiro, among other locations.
Van Schalkwyk said this was not solely down to the spillover effect of hosting the World Cup, and highlighted the promotion of its world-class convention centers to boost business tourism.
Last year, tourism accounted for about 8 percent of South Africa’s estimated $363 billion gross domestic product. In contrast, international tourism accounted for just 0.3 percent of Japan’s $5.4 trillion GDP in 2011.
Looking ahead, Van Schalkwyk said he expects 15 million tourists to visit in 2020, generating an additional $50 billion for its economy.
“Tourism is no longer a soft industry,” he said.
Noting that Pretoria dispatched an aircraft and rescue team to the Tohoku region just three days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Van Schalkwyk emphasized that South Africa remains committed to Japan’s recovery and said its travel agents are promoting it as a must-see destination.
Travel is up in both directions. In December, the number of Japanese visitors to South Africa surged 41.6 percent from the same period in 2010. Although that only accounts for around 0.2 percent of all visitors to South Africa, to a large degree because there are no direct flights, Van Schalkwyk said Japanese are considered lucrative travelers, noting that more than 100 Japanese companies have already set up local offices in South Africa, for example to host trade shows or business events.