CAPE TOWN, January 26 – South Africa's top holiday destination Cape Town weathered a post-recession summer with fewer tourists, but is gearing up to bounce back in 2010 at Africa's first football World Cup.The global economic crisis saw international arrivals to the city drop by up to 12 percent last year, while domestic arrivals fell up to eight percent as South Africa braced its first post-apartheid recession.
But industry experts say the country fared better than most, with the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) listing Africa as the only continent to buck negative trends in 2009 with a robust five percent growth.
"The world recession really hit us very late," said Calvyn Gilfellan, chief executive of the regional tourism body Cape Town Routes Unlimited.
"We are fortunate that our industry hasn’t been as negatively affected, but there’s nothing to be complacent about. We still need to work hard to ensure that we are on to a road of recovery."
Tourism is a top five industry in the Western Cape province which boasts some of South Africa’s premier attractions: Cape Town, the Cape winelands, the popular Garden Route and the whale-watching hub of Hermanus.
Foreign spending in the region topped 20 billion rand (2.7 billion dollars, 1.9 billion euros) for the first time last year, even though a stronger rand has made South Africa more expensive for foreigners.
Domestic tourists brought in a further 4.5 billion rand.
"Anything that is happening in the industry is of huge concern for the authorities," said Gilfellan. "It is indeed for us, the goose that lays the golden egg."
But even the Cape Town summer — when long sunny days draw crowds to the city’s beaches, mountains and cafes — did not go unscathed.
With summer winding down, foreign arrivals are down six percent and locals three percent during the peak season that runs December 12 to January 13.
Part of the visitor drop could be because holidaymakers plan to visit later during 2010, said Kamilla Swart of the Centre for Tourism Research in Africa, told AFP.
"It appears as if some visitors have changed their holiday plans to visit in June/July 2010 instead," she told AFP.
"What we will have is another ‘high’ season, as June and July are generally quieter tourism months in Cape Town."
Predictions for the World Cup are "excellent", said Nick Seewer of the Orient-Express group which owns Cape Town’s luxury Mount Nelson Hotel.
The group, which draws 70-80 percent of business from outside South Africa, reported a healthy summer after knocks during the year. This is despite an overall dip of at least 10 percent among top-end bookings in the province.
"We hope that, with a successful World Cup and revitalised world economies… both corporate and leisure travel to South and southern Africa will greatly improve," Seewer said.
With a new football stadium wedged between the landmark Table Mountain and Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison, Cape Town is well-positioned to reap World Cup rewards despite 2010 fixtures ending at a semi-final match.
"Cape Town is indeed South Africa’s premier destination," said tourism analyst Wolfgang Thomas.
"This also explains why it has in the past usually been able to perform better during phases of decline."
But he also cautioned on anticipated visitor numbers, which have been tipped as high as 483,000 tourists, saying they "may be quite unrealistic".
The United Nations’ WTO predicts a strong 2010 for African tourism with the World Cup an "extra boost" — something the industry is banking on.
"A lot of people are holding back and wanting to do something in the year of 2010," said Gilfellan.
"They want to say I’ve been in South Africa during the historic moment — for the first time when the World Cup was hosted in Africa."