[Image] The Maropeng visitors’ centre in the Cradle of Humankind, famous for its wealth of hominin fossils.
(Images: Mediaclubsouthafrica.com)

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South Africa is ranked among the top five countries in the world in respect of tourism growth and is on its way to achieving its goal of becoming one of the top 20 destinations in the world by 2020.

According to Minister for Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa achieved strong growth in tourism during the first quarter of this year.

"South Africa has become an exceptional global destination, with a tourist arrivals growth of 10.2% in 2012," said Van Schalkwyk.

"The arrivals growth consistently tracked higher than the worldwide average and it has put South Africa firmly on track to reach its target of being one of the 20 top destinations in the world by 2020."

A strong growth in the number of tourists from Europe during the first quarter after a long period of stagnation was recorded. The number of German tourists grew 17%, France 14% and Italy 17%, while the UK grew 3% off a high base.

The growth in tourist numbers from emerging markets in the first quarter of the year, according to figures provided by Statistics South Africa was equally strong, with Chinese tourism registering a 37,4% increase, India 22%, Nigeria 22% and Ghana 46%.

Travelling through the country

Most of the movement into and out of the country is through OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport, the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe, the Lebombo border post into Mozambique, Ficksburg and Maseru Bridge into Lesotho, Oshoek and Golela into Swaziland, Kopfontein and Ramatlabama into Botswana.

A total of 9 188 368 international tourists visited South Africa in 2012; 10,2% more than the 8 339 354 tourists who travelled to the country in 2011.

Particularly strong growth was recorded in 2012 from Asia (up 33,7% on the figures recorded in 2011), driven by growth from China and India, and Central and South America (up 37,0%).

Among the top ten South African hotspots that are favourites with tourists are Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal's Durban beach front, Gauteng's Soweto and Johannesburg, the Garden Route, and Cape Town's Table Mountain, Robben Island, the Winelands, and the Cape Peninsula.

Wildlife still remains the biggest draw card, with the big five - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo - being the biggest attraction.

However, travellers from neighbouring states including Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, view South Africa more as a shopping destination and are less interested in the sights.

Homegrown trekking

South Africa is also increasingly focusing on domestic tourism and is spearheading a hugely successful 'Nothing's More Fun than a Sho't Left' campaign targeting young people and trendy South Africans to encourage them to explore their own country.

The Sho't left campaign was unveiled at the launch of Tourism month in September by Van Schalkwyk and offers a number of holiday packages – deals that have been engineered in partnership with South African Tourism's travel trade partners to deliver fun, easy, accessible and affordable holidays.

An amount of R25-million has been injected into this national initiative to promote domestic leisure destinations.

The spotlight is firmly on domestic travel and at the heart of the campaign are inspirational young South Africans from the media, music and art scenes.

Local tourism is big business

Local tourists are said to contribute more than R100-billion a year to the country's economy, while international visitors added R84-billion in direct and indirect revenue.

"Last year's tourism growth definitely confirms that our investment in tourism promotion and campaigns are bearing fruit. South Africa's tourism growth rate, that's well above the global growth rate, justifies the need to celebrate tourism. This industry contributes 2,9% directly and 9% overall to our GDP [Gross Domestic Product]," said Van Schalkwyk

In 2012, 12,5 million adult South Africans took 25,4 million trips and spent an average of 4,8 nights away from home per trip.

According to statistics from Statistics South Africa, Gauteng is the most frequently visited province for day trips, while the Northern Cape is the least visited. KwaZulu-Natal saw the highest proportion of overnight trips.

Visiting friends and family relatives was the main reason for taking day and overnight trips. More than 12,5 million South Africans travelled within the country in the past year.

The two most frequently used modes of transport for domestic tourism were cars and taxis, with the use of cars being dominant.

Business tourism is a must-have

South Africa is targeting business tourists despite them making up just 5% of foreign arrivals to the country. They, on average, spend up to three times more than tourists arriving on leisure purposes.

To date, South Africa has secured 88 bids for major events between 2013 and 2017; this is expected to boost the South African economy over the next five years by R2,6 billion.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, 40% of business visitors returned to the country within five years of their first visit, while 18% went on leisure trips prior to their business activities and 22% did the same afterwards.

Business visitors to the country, including those attending conferences and exhibitions, and on incentive trips, contributed 4%, or R2,3 billion, to South Africa's total tourism revenue.