Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Wed November 09 2016

South Africa: Now is the Time

Airlines & Airports South African Airways David Cogswell November 09, 2016

South Africa: Now is the Time

PHOTO: Cape Town. (Photo by David Cogswell)

As the dark clouds of a grim election season lift and Americans once again take to the skies and release their pent-up demand for travel, there is no better choice of travel destinations than South Africa, according to Todd Neuman, South African Airways’ executive vice president, the Americas.

There are many factors that figure into making South Africa a great travel destination right now. One big one is the currency exchange between the South African rand and the American dollar.

The exchange rate is at startling levels. A South African rand is worth less than 8 cents. It takes more than 13 rand to make a dollar.

Only a few years ago, in January 2011 the year after the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the dollar was only worth 6.69 rand, half what the dollar is worth today. Even at that rate, everything was noticeably cheaper in South Africa than in the U.S. Now prices are twice as good as they were in 2011.  

The cost of living in South Africa is 42.5 percent less than in the U.S. The price of a beer in an average bar in South Africa is about $1.88.

The Economist’s Big Mac Index, which compares the prices of McDonald’s Big Mac burger around the world, tells us that last July the price of a Big Mac was $5.04 in North America. In South Africa it was $2.10.

The value of the dollar on the ground in South Africa is far greater than in the U.S. or most other countries in the world.

Historically low international fuel prices have helped South African Airways to offer rates that bring transportation costs in line with many destinations much closer to the U.S. Currently South African Airways is offering roundtrip air from New York to Johannesburg for $906.

READ MORE: A Guide to Road Tripping South Africa

South African Airways Vacations, the tour packaging operation of the airline, is now offering a nine-day package for South Africa called the South Africa Sizzler priced from $1,999, air included. It includes four nights in Cape Town and two nights on safari at Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge in the "Malaria Free" Pilanesberg National Park, with six breakfasts, two dinners and two game drives included.

Considering the prices on the ground in Cape Town, it’s a historically low price for traveling to and experiencing South Africa.

Growing Awareness

Travelers seem to be catching onto the value available in South Africa as the country continues to become more familiar and comfortable to Americans.

“The market is doing quite well,” said Neuman. “There seems to be a lot of interest,

increasing interest in South Africa. It’s nice to see our efforts and those of South African Tourism and our partners in the tourism sector are paying off.  

The airline has to buy fuel in U.S. dollars using South African rand to pay for it, so it is at a distinct disadvantage because of the currency exchange rates. But as the national carrier of South Africa, SAA has a double mission, not only to generate a profit for the airline, but also to promote business and tourism in South Africa. Sometimes it has to lose on one side of the equation to gain on the other.

“While SAA is seeing a reduction in fuel prices, the strength of the dollar inhibits some of the benefit of lower fuel prices,” said Neuman. “But from the standpoint of the destination itself, it has helped to boost tourism numbers. Tourism is up 10 percent year over year.”

South Africa’s growth has been on a steady upswing since the overthrow of apartheid in the early 1990s, but it took a blow from the bad publicity generated by the ebola outbreak in West Africa that hit in late 2014.

Although the disease did surface in France and in the U.S., in Africa it was confined to a small area in West Africa that includes Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. Although it was nowhere near South Africa, or the other tourism regions of Africa, it knocked tourism flat for the whole continent even though Dakar, Senegal, in the affected area, is closer to New York (3,818 miles) than it is to Nairobi (3,865 miles), Johannesburg (4,159 miles) or Cape Town (4,100 miles).

READ MORE: The Changing Landscape of South Africa Tourism

“We saw a spike after the 2010 soccer World Cup,” said Neuman, “and the destination continued to grow, but in 2015 it pretty much flattened out even though South Africa was not affected by ebola. The growth rate wasn’t a negative, it just flattened it.”

However, with the ebola scare fading into the forgotten past, the country’s tourism industry is rebounding. The currency exchange rate is helping to sweeten the deal and put South Africa on people’s horizons.

“Over the past two years we have been very proactive in promoting the benefit and value of the favorable exchange rate to encourage tourism,” said Neuman. “South African Tourism is doing the same as are many of our partners. The message has gotten out. It’s beginning to resonate.”

Culture and Adventure

Also helping South African tourism is a continued growth in the recognition of Cape Town as a great international travel destination.

“Cape Town continues to get more and more recognition as not only one of most beautiful and affordable travel destination, but it’s also becoming a foodie capital, a destination for foodies. There is growing recognition that it has a lot of diversity.

“When people think of travel to Africa they think primarily of safaris, and while that is a great experience there are many other experiences available. There is the beauty of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula, the wonderful Cape Wine region, and South Africa is becoming more and more an adventure destination with surfing, hiking, diving, bungee jumping and those types of activities. There is a lot of variety that makes South Africa different from other dests in Africa that are more safari-centric.”

South Africa’s history is also a powerful drawing card.

“The history and culture of the country attracts many travelers,” said Neuman, “such as those who are interested the in apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela’s efforts at creating a democratic country.”

South Africa’s tourism industry is now setting it sights on attracting the millennial generation.

“We are working on making the destination more attractive for millennials,” said Neuman. “We see a huge opportunity in the demographic and we are focusing on that market. South Africa has been seen as being primarily for older travelers, retired people, as a once-in-a-lifetime destination. But the demographic of the traveler to South Africa is changing and that’s the reason South African Tourism is focusing on the millennials.”