The South African tourism industry is blessed with natural beauty and cultural diversity. Nicknamed the Rainbow Nation the country’s 11 official languages reflect its history; ten indigenous languages are spoken by the original inhabitants of the land, Afrikaans originated with Dutch settlers and eventually the English brought their mother tongue.
South Africa encapsulates so much of what Africa has to offer, it is a vibrant, growing country rich in tradition but with a promising future. Savannah, lush hills, mountains, coastline, beaches, cosmopolitan cities, ancient traditions, a modern economy, vineyards and a huge array of wildlife are just some of the reasons tourists are flocking to South Africa.
Unfortunately, like all too many African countries, South Africa also has its demons; the memory of apartheid is still fresh, inequality still falls broadly along racial lines, and crime and HIV rates are high by Western standards. But, South Africans aren’t shackled by the past. It is a relatively young country (demographically and politically), one of the BRICS (the name given to the world’s most promising developing countries), hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup and is growing in international stature.
The country is divided into 9 provinces, Gauteng Province is home to Johannesburg – likely your first port of call if you are flying into the country – and Pretoria, the administrative capital. The Western Cape is a tourist hotspot and proudly includes the picturesque Cape Town. Eastern Cape has some of South Africa’s best surfing beaches and stunning national parks. Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces are home to the sprawling Kruger National Park – one of the most famous in the world. North West Province has Pilanesberg Game Reserve, while KwaZulu-Nata is renowned for its hiking and waterfalls. The Northern Cape is the largest but most sparsely populated while the Free State is home to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
South Africa is one of the most dynamic, unique and breathtaking tourist destinations in the world. Despite the long flight times South Africa is one of the most accessible African countries and is often used by tourists – especially North American tourists – as a gateway to the rest of the continent. South African tourism is well established, with high quality dedicated infrastructure, and a range of popular attractions.
South African Tourism Guide
Kruger National Park
This is one of the world’s most famous national parks, packed full of African wildlife including, lions, crocodiles, giraffes, elephants and more. It is the perfect place for an authentic African safari – on par with anything offered anywhere else on the continent. Kruger National Park is located in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, in the northwest of the country and spans nearly 20 000 square kilometers. In addition to the vast natural diversity, tourists will be left in awe by the beauty of the landscape which can be easily explored thanks to the well-developed infrastructure within the park.South African tourism is synonymous with safari and there is no better place to embark on a safari than Kruger National Park.
Cape Peninsula stretches 52 km from Mouille point in the north down to Cape Point to form the south-westernmost extremity of Africa. From the many vantage points tourists can marvel at the breathtaking vistas in every direction. Like South Africa itself, the Cape Peninsula is point of convergence; mountains meet the sea and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans swirl together. Some of South Africa’s most famous geographic elements are located on the cape; Table Mountain, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. For those so inclined there is also fantastic shopping and, of course, scenic beaches to relax on.
South Africa does not shy from its controversial past. One of the most popular tourist attractions is the infamous Robben Island. The prison island is just 7 kilometers from Bloubergstrand (a suburb of Cape Town). Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island and the current president Jacob Zuma was also once a prisoner there. Today the guards and wardens have been replaced by tour guides and visitors. A museum also stands on the site and guests can see firsthand the cells in which Mandela and others were imprisoned and the quarry where they were made to break rocks. A trip to Robben Island takes upward of 3 hours, and can be a very emotional experience – in contrast to the beaches and nightlife on shore in nearby Cape Town – but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason.
Cape Town is the most visited tourist destination in all of Africa. Table Mountain forms the backdrop to the bustling city. The iconic landmark can be hiked by adventurous visitors in order to get a one of a kind (and well deserved) view of the city and surrounding ocean below. Tourists and locals alike flock to the city’s many beaches, all of which have their own personality. On the Atlantic coast the water temperature is a lot lower, but the beaches are better developed while temperatures on the False Bay are comparable to the Mediterranean. Boulder Beach meanwhile is home to a colony of penguins. The city itself has less inequality and lower poverty and crime rates than other parts of the country, and is the most tourist friendly city in the country.
Wine has been part of South Africa’s history since 1659 when Jan van Riebeeck, recorded that settlers had made wine just 7 years after founding Cape Town. Many of the grapes in the Winelands – the name given to wine region – would be familiar to Europeans, however there is also a uniquely South African variety grown no where else in the world: pinotag. Pinotag is a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut which produces a deep, smoky red wine with earthy undertones.
Cape Town is the closest major city to the Winelands which are located in the Western Cape province. Wine lovers will undoubtedly revel in the array of wine and cheese tastings and vineyard tours available in the Winelands, but those of us with less refined palates can also appreciate the stunning landscapes – lush valleys framed by jagged mountains. Be sure to visit during the winter when the hills and valleys turn into lush and fertile green.
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, but not traditionally a tourist destination. It sits far inland, serving as a convenient mid-point for tourists travelling between more popular destinations like Cape Town and Kruger National Park. Located in and nearby Johannesburg, nicknamed Joburg or Jozi by locals, are museums dedicated to Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. The city also boasts many staples of major metropolitan areas around the world; a theme park, art and history museums, shopping centers, theaters and more. The Cradle of Humankind – one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Africa is just a short drive from the city and is home to the richest collection of hominid fossils in the world. Joburg, unlike Cape Town, is less sheltered from the realities of modern South Africa. Inequality is rife and contributes to high poverty and crime rates, but the city can still offer a fun and safe experience. Johannesburg has accommodated large numbers of tourists in the past. The city hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup final which inspired the Hollywood blockbuster Invictus and helped unite the new South Africa. More recently the city also held the 2010 World Cup final.
How Much does it cost to visit South Africa
Flights to South Africa can be expensive, and long, so booking in advance and trying to find a bargain is recommended.The best way to explore South Africa is by renting a car. Public transportation is notoriously unreliable in many places, and the sheer vastness of the country means that the only practical way to travel from city to city is either by driving or flying. Be forewarned, unless you are willing to pay extra rental fees, cars in South Africa are manual and, like many former British Colonies, South Africans drive on the left.
If you are thrifty you can get away with spending as little as $40 CAD per day in South Africa, but considering the transportation and safety issues (which will be addressed) this might be somewhat unrealistic. A less bare-bones budget would require a daily allowance of about $125 while a more high-end experience could run just shy of $300.
Health and Safety
The Canadian government does not have a nationwide travel advisory for South Africa, but the Government of Canada website does suggest that travelers “exercise a high degree of caution due to the significant level of serious crime.” Visitors to South Africa must be aware of the risks and take necessary precautions. Robberies, muggings, car theft, and violent crimes occur frequently throughout the country and can involve tourists.
Only use ATMs that are inside buildings and make sure no one can see your PIN. According to the Canadian Government, “criminals have been known to create bogus accidents or roadblocks…and to throw rocks, bricks and paint from freeway overpasses onto moving vehicles” in order to rob the drivers and steal the car, so don’t stop or get out of your vehicle. Criminals have also been known to impersonate police, so don’t pull over, even when asked, unless you are in a well populated, trusted area. Be especially vigilant whenever you are required to slow or stop your car as smash-and-grabs occur often at stop signs or red lights. Tourist areas are considerably safer than much of the country but they are not immune from crime.
The Bottom Line
South Africa has a troubled past and still has some serious problems, but the country is young, vibrant, stunningly beautiful and rich in culture and history. It is by and large safe for tourists who exercise caution and truly a one of a kind experience.
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