There’s also another factor that adds to South Africa’s appeal, not only as a honeymoon product, but also to its popularity as a first-time destination to Africa. The entire continent was once thought of as a faraway dream destination that would be just that to most folks—an unattainable dream and the specific purview of the older, wealthier generation. But that’s no longer the case because South Africa has become an affordable luxury destination for most Americans.
“I think when Americans are looking for an affordable luxury destination with a compelling appeal, they’re looking more and more at South Africa,” Zungu says, pointing to the extremely friendly dollar exchange rate which makes time in country not only compelling, but affordable, as well. “We’re favorable compared to the euro, very favorable compared to Peru and other South American countries, as well as Australia and Asian countries. When you look at what the dollar will buy you in South Africa and the quality of the experience you will get, there’s just no comparison. That’s why I think that affordable luxury aspect is quite an important component when buying the trip.”
Zungu is particularly proud of South Africa’s selection as host to the 2010 FIFA World Cup and sees it as an affirmation by the traveling public of what a truly sophisticated and what she calls a “serious” destination, the country has become. “I mean the honor of hosting a World Cup—we’ve achieved so much as a country to be able to get to the level to be awarded something as big as that.”
Indeed, the World Cup promises to bring tens of thousands of new visitors to the country and a whole lot of soccer aficionados from what some would think of as an unusual source—the U.S. “The U.S. has surprisingly been the leading buyer of tickets for the World Cup—it’s ahead of England, ahead of Brazil and ahead of any traditional soccer-loving country,” Zungu says. And these awards, she says, “have encouraged us in saying that we’re on the right track in the positioning of South Africa as a destination.”
Abercrombie & Kent, still another consistent Readers’ Choice Awards winner that’s been named Best Tour Operator, Africa for 10 consecutive years, also points to South Africa as one of the best destinations for the first-time visitor to Africa. The company’s popularity as a tour operator to Africa, however, is a testament to its experience there—they began in 1962—and they run their own ground operations there with 17 offices throughout Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town.
The company’s insistence on details and providing the best accommodations, in fact, is undoubtedly the reason for A&K being consistently named best tour operator in Africa. The company owns and maintains its own fleet of cars and safari 4x4s, for example, with a guaranteed window seat for everyone and which, explains Pamela Lassers, director of media relations, “….ensures the vehicles are kept in tip-top condition. We have our own driver training schools and that’s like a huge issue that travel agents always mention—how good the drivers are and how much they compliment them on how the drivers are constantly keeping them comfortable.”
Lassers also points out that A&K reacts to changes in consumer demand in terms of preferences in a market segment. “One of the things we’re seeing is more and more clients coming back to Africa on their second or third trip and they’re interested in being out in the bush either in tented camps or small, sort of boutique safari camps maybe with 12 to 15 rooms, instead of staying at larger properties that you might find in Kenya or Tanzania.
“They’re definitely looking for a more intimate travel experience that I would describe as a bit more authentic.… On the food side we’re being very conscious about providing healthy meals because we’re getting a lot of comments about that. And I would say that in the past year, the demand for more active safaris has increased so we’re running a record number of Kilimanjaro climbs—it’s become one of the most popular 50th birthday places—and getting out there walking or canoeing as opposed to just sitting in a vehicle.”