Game if you are
South Africa has always had the makings of a dream holiday destination. It has warm, hospitable people, excellent food and wine, stunning natural landscapes and unforgettable wildlife reserves. But it was last year's Fifa World Cup that proved the country was eager to be enjoyed by international travellers.
One year after the soccer tournament, South Africans remain jubilant over the success of the event. The number of visitors has increased, especially from places such as China and Brazil. While the global economic downturn has levelled the buoyant figures seen during the World Cup, the South African Tourism organisation still recorded an increase of more than 33 per cent in visitor numbers from Asia. There was an overall growth of 10.3 per cent for visitors to South Africa during the peak travel month of December compared with the previous year. This is remarkable, considering the UN World Tourism Organisation recorded global tourism growth of only about 7 per cent last year.
Visitors were certainly drawn to the country by the World Cup. What's more, millions of people who could not make it to the tournament saw the soccer and, therefore, the country, on television. The world press initially remained sceptical of whether the event would be a success. But the activities proceeded with barely a hitch, and the press rallied behind the event and the nation. Visitors experienced first hand the diverse and rewarding sights and activities South Africa has to offer. These range from spotting leopards on sunset game drives to lunching in a 200-year-old Cape Dutch-styled winery. Tourists can relax on pristine beaches or learn about the country's troubled past at the Apartheid Museum.
'As with the 1994 elections, the rest of the world thought things would go wrong with the World Cup,' says George Cohen, managing director of luxury boutique hotel The Saxon in Johannesburg. 'There was talk of the crime rate and whether we would manage logistically. But we proved the world wrong. It was a fantastic experience, and it put South Africa on the map.'
The event spurred development across the tourism sector. Clive Bennett, general manager of the One&Only Cape Town hotel, says the event 'made us review the whole tourism structure'.
Two major airports were overhauled; Durban's waterfront was redeveloped; roads in major cities were broadened; transport links like the Gautrain, which ferries people from Johannesburg's airport to major city stations, were built; and hotel development boomed.
Significant top-end hotels opened or expanded in response to increased demand in upmarket tourist spots, such as the Garden Route and winelands in the Cape, game parks and the major cities, such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. While South Africa has always attracted visitors who prefer to travel in style, they have the World Cup to thank for the extra choice of venues and improved facilities.
In Cape Town, a city recently voted best tourist destination in the world by online review site Tripadvisor, major openings include the One&Only Cape Town on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, and the elegant Taj - Cape Town. Seven vintage trailers that function as hotel rooms were installed on the rooftop of historical The Grand Daddy hotel on trendy Long Street. This makes it stand out from other boutique hotels.
Bennett says the new accommodation adds to the diversity that the 'Mother City' has always offered - everything from cage-diving with sharks and abseiling off iconic Table Mountain, to exquisite drinking and dining in Franschhoek, one of the oldest and most charming towns in the country. It was settled by French Huguenots in the late 17th century.
'Cape Town offers incredible scenic beauty, an attractive climate, safety, and good food and wine. Guests generally come here for four to five days to enjoy all the city has to offer,' Bennett says. 'Everyone in the tourism business has worked hard in recent years to keep the city at a high standard. We are acutely conscious of the need to keep our facilities up to scratch. The cable car on Table Mountain, for example, was overhauled a few years ago and can now handle many more visitors.'
The World Cup also had a major impact on increasing the outside world's awareness of South African cities and sites beyond Cape Town.
'The World Cup showcased the diversity of what South Africa offers,' says Andrew Cook, general manager of Johannesburg's The Westcliff, which was upgraded for the event.
'Cape Town is second to none, but people realised Johannesburg has its own history and culture in addition to being an important business hub. Durban has a beautiful coastline with warm seas all year round, while the World Heritage Site of the Drakensberg was also highlighted. I foresee massive tourism growth in South Africa over the next few years.'
The stately Saxon hotel, nestled in the exclusive suburb of Sandhurst in Johannesburg, recently increased its capacity from 24 to 53 suites. The move was 'always on the cards, but the World Cup spurred us on,' says general manager Cohen.
The hotel now has three villas for booking by groups, with private elevator access, plunge pool, terrace and lounge, satellite kitchen and butler service.
Cohen says guests benefit from superb value for money at upmarket hotels and resorts in South Africa. It is good value when compared with places like Europe. 'The entire package is much more professional,' he says.
Like other luxury Johannesburg hotels, The Saxon offers a range of bespoke activities to give guests a local experience. These include tours of Soweto - the township which formed the base of the anti-apartheid movement - as well as craft markets and art galleries.
Luxury hotels that entered the Johannesburg market in time for the World Cup include the Da Vinci Hotel and Suites, located adjacent to the prime location of Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. There's also the 290-room, five-star business and leisure venue, Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton, with has an avant-garde Amani African Spa.
Much of the upmarket development in Johannesburg is taking place around Sandton in the northern suburbs. But the city centre is undergoing a massive government revitalisation project, too. Arts on Main, a collection of warehouses from around 1900, has been redeveloped into painters' studios, art galleries, local designer boutiques, an outdoor cinema and Johannesburg's first art hotel, 12 Decades. This has rooms designed by some of the country's leading artists and is worth visiting. So is Constitution Hill, previously the site of a prison that once held Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, among others. The building houses a great art collection and has become a major tourist attraction.
'The programme to rehabilitate city parks and create new public spaces and introduce art into the streets has been very successful and has given the city a very particular identity,' says Greg Truen, director of Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects, a firm involved in public projects across the country.
To many travellers, true luxury is not hopping from one imposing, characterless five-star hotel to the next. It's experiencing local flavour and colour. Today's South Africa has local flavour in spades. The World Cup has made South Africa and the world realise the country's potential for tourism.
Where to stay
This all-suite, high-profile boutique hotel attracts guests 'without a budget'. Formerly a private residence that housed Nelson Mandela on his release from Robben Island in 1990, the hotel can also arrange for safari experiences at its sister property at Shambala Private Game Reserve, two hours away in the Waterberg Mountains, which was commercialised before the World Cup.
Sunday brunch next to the glittering pool at The Westcliff, with the grunts of lions audible on the breeze from the Johannesburg Zoo across the road, is legendary, as is the service. Built on a hillside among landscaped gardens, the hotel offers expansive city views.
DaVinci Hotel and Suites
This contemporary 166-room and 54-suite hotel offers access to excellent shopping and business districts, and has a whisky, wine and cigar lounge and a serene spa.
One&Only Cape Town
The first luxury hotel to open in Cape Town in nearly a decade, it has restaurants by celebrated chef Nobuyuki 'Nobu' Matsuhisa and local star Reuben Riffel, and an impressive wine cellar specialising in premium Cape Winelands producers.
Taj - Cape Town
Located in the heritage building previously housing the South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers in the famous pedestrian precinct of St George's Mall, the hotel exudes old-world charm with gleaming marble, classic furnishings and wood-panelled dining rooms.
The Grand Daddy
Proving that luxury does not always have to mean classic, the seven rooftop vintage Airstream trailers are themed, ranging from AfroFunk, in earthy African tones minus the wildlife prints, to Dorothy, which is decked out in blue and white polka dots. The trailers are air conditioned, and have remodelled showers and toilets, plus landscaped gardens giving each trailer its own 'backyard'.