July 12, 1999 -- After a mixture of insults and arrows aimed at South Africa’s tourism industry from competitors in Kenya, a reply from the country under scrutiny seems to be in order. In a recent issue (June 21), I quoted partisan comments from Nairobi that both hailed Nelson Mandela’s preeminent, if mostly incidental, role over the last five years in attracting visitors to South Africa, while also citing the impact of that country’s social problems on tourism. Now, inevitably, there’s the big question: What happens now that Mandela has stepped down?
Kurt Peter, director of operations at the highly visible Sun City Resort, believes South Africa faces many challenges, but he’s optimistic, even without Mandela at the helm. When Mandela came to power in 1994, Peter says, he “stabilized the nation and settled it down…He symbolized [both] South Africa and all of Africa.”
The incoming president, Thabo Mbeki, who was Mandela’s second-in-command, has the “opportunity to go forth in a constructive way,” says Peter. “And he’ll have the will to face the issues, such as crime, and what’s causing them.” But according to Peter, Mbeki will have a “sounder base” with which to work than Mandela had when he took office. Peter describes the new chief executive as “a realist, a tough cookie.”
Peter also takes an evenhanded approach to opinions expressed about South Africa by Richard Leakey, head of Kenya Wildlife Services, and East African ground operator Richard Markham. Peter calls Kenya “a wonderful destination” and lauds what it has “done for African tourism in the last 20 years.” But he goes on to say: “The Kenyans are kidding themselves: Their infrastructure is imploding.” Echoing what Leaky describes, Peter refers to Kenya’s nagging problems on such basic necessities as water, electricity, education, healthcare and roads.
Setting Priorities. Looking into his own backyard, Peter says “the quality of life for a large segment of South Africa’s population has to be improved, a reality that determines the scope of the country’s investment in tourism.” Pointing to an “obvious conflict,” he says “priority demands on resources lie elsewhere, beyond tourism.”
Nevertheless, Peter says a private-public partnership was formed late last year that will use a new hotel bed tax to fund an ambitious tourism promotion campaign. Sponsorships and donations from the private sector, along with some government monies, would also finance this “war chest.” Peter points out that one job is created by every eight visitors and that every job has an impact on 10 to 12 people. With all of South Africa’s pressing problems, he says, “we need a balanced perspective.”
Where will South Africa’s newfound fiscal resources go? “You’ve got to fish where the fish are,” Peter says. Europeans are a prime target, while Asians, who have stayed home for nearly two years because of economic issues, are starting to come back. The current guest mix at Sun City’s four hotels is 28 percent Asian and 22 percent European (led by Germans, French and Spaniards), with the U.S. and Japan each contributing 5 to 7 percent.
Challenges Ahead. As for South Africa’s challenges, Peter says perception is reality. “There are pockets of crime and violence,” he says, “but no worse than in some other places around the world, and probably better than in some. Remember, we’ve come from 40 years of apartheid…There are residual perceptions that will take us quite a while to eradicate.” Another “big problem,” according to Peter, is a shortage of long-haul air seats into South Africa. “There is a certain amount of protectionism for South Africa Airways (SAA),” he says. “It may help matters that SAA now has an American CEO [Coleman Andrews].” Despite the host of unresolved questions lingering on South Africa’s horizon, however, Peter says “business at Sun City is booming.”
To get to Sun City, we drove from Sandton, a Johannesburg suburb, for two hours through pleasing countryside. We were quite unprepared for the right turn that carried us into a verdant and landscaped oasis. Sun City is a mirage, an outsized vision brought to life in the middle of nowhere. The resort is the brainchild of Sol Kerzner, who, like Bugsy Siegel earlier in the Nevada desert, saw the twin pillars of casinos and resorts luring clients from near and far, to play and spend. (You are probably doing business these days with Sol Kerzner at Atlantis in the Bahamas and Mohegan Sun, his new venture in Connecticut.) Unlike Las Vegas, a giant megalopolis of brand–name competitors, Sun City’s hotels are owned by one company, Sun International South Africa, which provides a totally integrated and unique experience.
As soon as we pulled up to the Palace at Sun City, I was reminded of Samuel Coleridge’s lines: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a pleasure dome decree.” Coleridge might have been in an opium haze when he penned those immortal stanzas, but Kerzner was clearly on the money when he built Sun City. He was chairman of Sun International South Africa until 1993 and remains a consultant to the resort.
The first of Sun City’s foursome, the Sun City Hotel, opened in 1979 with 341 rooms; the Cabanas followed in 1981, with 380 rooms; the Cascade in 1984, with 243 rooms; and the crown jewel, the Palace, opened with 338 rooms in 1992. It’s quite a complex, set on 100 acres with a wide selection of fine restaurants and great entertainment. And it’s even attracting more traffic from the U.S.
This column originally appeared in Travel Agent magazine.