Right now the future is looking rosy in southern Africa. Back in 2014, the World Travel and Tourism Council predicted that Africa would be the fastest growing travel and tourism market for the next 10 years, and for 2016 it looks as if the figures are being proven right. The northern regions of the continent — particularly Egypt and Tunisia — may be going through a shaky patch, but powerhouse South Africa saw an increase of 15.4% in arrivals in the first six months of this year, and its neighbor countries are following suit.
Southern governments are stable and free from terrorist threat. The safari experience is diversifying into the likes of spectacular self-drives and luxury train journeys, backed by great food and wine. The exchange rate remains advantageous. And the conservation message, so important for Africa’s biggest single attraction — its wildlife — appears to be getting through.
“Botswana’s progressive views on conservation are stoking interest in the Okavango Delta in particular,” says Andrea Dobbe, director of Micato Safaris. And with 2017 being the United Nation’s ‘Year of Sustainable Tourism’, it will be even more important.
But the biggest player in the region is South Africa, which hosts 4.9 million tourists, or 43% of the overall total. The next most popular destinations are Botswana (9%), Mozambique (8.5%), Zimbabwe (8%) and Namibia (5%). Zambia, Malawi and Swaziland are just behind.
However, the most pertinent issue that these countries have, when it comes to American visitors, is access. Historically, most air routes from the US have been via Johannesburg or Cape Town (direct flights with United or South African Airways), so when South Africa sneezed, its neighbors caught the cold.
But there are new opportunities coming on stream, with Qatar, KLM and Ethiopian starting to fly direct to Namibia from their own hubs. Qatar is also now flying to Zambia, while Emirates has recently increased its capacity into both Zambia and Zimbabwe. More capacity means more competition, which means lower fares and bigger visitor numbers. The future looks bright.
This is the continent’s main attraction. An African nation with a diversity of wildlife distributed among national and private parks, providing safari experiences of all levels, from popular self-drive right up to the remotest luxury stays. Add to that historic highlands in the form of Drakensberg, a fantastic coastal drive along the Garden Route, luxury trains Rovos Rail and the Blue Train, Africa’s most appealing tourist city in Cape Town, plus Stellenbosch, the nation’s second oldest town and the home of refined living in the heart of the winelands. The latter is particularly important because these days, “travelers are increasingly focused on food and wine,” says Micato Safaris, which has started offering travelers make-your-own wine-blending experiences. US visitors to South Africa increased by 18% in 2016. Of the major infrastructural plans for 2017, perhaps the standout is the Silo district of Cape Town’s waterfront, where a former grain silo is being turned into a hotel and contemporary art museum. There’s also Africa’s largest suspension bridge, which will connect South Africa’s southeastern corner with Mozambique, for a whole new access between the two countries.
The year 2016 was the 50th birthday of this unassuming African nation, and 2017 looks to be good news too, with a new movie (romantic drama A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike) hoping to do for Botswana what Out of Africa did for Kenya. Safari in the Okavango Delta remains the main reason for visiting, and Botswana has done well in conservation terms, with the highest densities of elephant in Africa, plus a rhino population that has gone from zero to well over 100 in the last decade. The nation’s progressive ban on big game hunting, now a couple of years old, has gone down well with the tourist industry. Visitors from the US are the big spenders here, often traveling in multi-generational family groups for once-in-a-lifetime trips.
Tourism to Mozambique has recently topped two million for the first time, but this remains a high-end, small-scale destination. Most of its focus is on barefoot beach-rimmed islands, such as Benguerra and Quirimbas, with great diving, seafood, dhow sailing and, in the case of larger islands like Ibo, old colonial settlements with movie-star atmosphere, often offered as a peaceful ending to a safari. Over the next three years, Mozambique’s national parks will be re-stocked with over 3,000 wild animals, mostly from South Africa, with the intention of providing a more complete destination.
With its new direct air links (Qatar, KLM and Ethiopian), Namibia is set to ensure that last year’s 9% increase in tourism is maintained. Unlike its neighbors, safari is not the main reason for coming here — spectacular landscapes, particularly the Skeleton Coast, the Namib desert, and the lush waterlands of the Zambezi, are. Great roads and infrastructure mean that self-drive is increasingly popular. With just two million people in a land as big as France, there’s minimal pollution, which has allowed the NamibRand to be designated Africa’s first dark-sky reserve. Namibia is also home to the unique San Bushmen, who are happy to take travelers with them on traditional hunts. And, although it’s largely arid, the nation does have its share of mainstream safari in the Zambezi district, where new openings in 2016 include Chobe Water Villas, a boutique lodge with 16 dwellings on the banks of the Chobe River.
Once a real powerhouse of African safari, with national parks such as Hwange and Mana Pools, Zimbabwe has struggled politically and economically in recent times, with inevitable repercussions for tourism. But the past couple of years have seen solid progress. Tour operators are reintroducing the destination and a couple of infrastructural changes have made headlines, particularly the new runway and terminal at Victoria Falls airport and the Elephant Express railcar that transfers safari customers from the airport into Hwange. At the time of writing, no new airlines or direct flights from outside Africa have been attracted to the modern airport, but there are some rumors swirling around Middle Eastern carriers. Victoria Falls itself is an essential visitor destination. The waterfall itself is stupendous, of course, but there’s a delightful resort atmosphere around the small town and its neighbor Livingstone across the river in Zambia.
Zambia is the spiritual home of walking safaris, and its small lodges and bush camps are “one of the last secret gems in southern Africa,” according to Mark Nolting, president of the Africa Adventure Company. Their unique offering is personal attention — “which is often lacking in many larger lodges and camps,” he says — ensuring a selective,
bespoke experience. These modern camps concentrate on two main parks: South Luangwa and Kafue, and their success, plus the recent launch of the online e-visa system, has recently pushed Zambian tourism over the magic one million mark.
Like Mozambique, Malawi has an ongoing wildlife-restocking programme for its national parks, particularly Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in central Malawi, which is receiving 500 elephants in Africa’s largest translocation. But this tiny nation is best known for its friendly people and its lake, with hotel islands and colorful fish making it an ideal family holiday destination. Besides which, there’s also lake yacht charter — unique in inland Africa — and passenger boat excursions, as well as horse-riding up in the highlands to the south.
Like Malawi, this landlocked kingdom lodged between South Africa and Mozambique is not particularly known for its wildlife. Adventure tourism is big here, with mountaineering, abseiling, river tubing, caving and zip-wiring, along with all the cultural tourism associated with being the last traditional African kingdom on the continent: King Mswati III, who recently married his 15th wife. Access is usually via Johannesburg, by road or air, a 45-minute flight to King Mswati the Third International airport on Swaziland Airlink.