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Boycott Plea Ignored : S. Africa Lures Tourists Amid Racial Unrest

Times Staff Writer

Jerry and Kay Kushins’ friends at the retirement community back in California thought they were just being foolish. Everyone knew they had an adventurous streak, and no one doubted they had the money to indulge it.

But at their age, why take a chance?

Nevertheless, the Kushins decided to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in a country better known for its tortured politics, race riots and exploding bombs than its game parks, beaches and fine dry wines.

They chose South Africa.

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“It was one of the few times we’ve been classified as brave,” Jerry Kushins said with a chuckle as he dined on rack of lamb at an island hotel here recently. His wife watched the Indian Ocean surf, illuminated by spotlight, as it crashed outside the restaurant windows.

‘Two Different Things’

“What we’re seeing and what we thought we’d see are just two totally different things,” Kushins said.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists have flooded into South Africa this year from Europe, the Far East, South America and even North America, giving the country a boost of foreign exchange and creating a raft of ambassadors to carry home the kind of good will that no amount of rand could buy this increasingly ostracized nation.

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South Africa’s 390,000 foreign tourists this year will pump about $500 million into the economy, making tourism the fourth-largest foreign exchange earner. Anti-apartheid activists say that revenue helps perpetuate the government’s domination of the voteless black majority, and they have urged tourists to boycott this country.

The tourists are lured by a strange combination of forces. Intrigued by the television pictures of flaming townships back in 1985 and 1986, many are coming to see for themselves now that the coast appears to be clear.

‘Let’s Have a Look’

“Even negative publicity abroad creates a feeling of interest,” said Digby Schutz, a regional director for Springbok Atlas Safaris, the country’s largest private touring agency. “People say, ‘Well, darn it, it’s for all intents and purposes safe. Let’s have a look.’ ”

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A state of emergency with a crackdown on political dissent has quieted much of South Africa’s violent racial strife. What remains has mostly been erased from the headlines and newscasts by the banning of reporters and photographers at the scene of anything the government calls “unrest.”

Foreign tourism rose 14% during the first half of this year, with Germans, Italians and Taiwanese leading the way. The number of American tourists increased by only 3%, but bookings for next year indicate that the North American market is beginning to recover from a 50% plunge since 1984.

South Africa’s best year for tourism was 1984, but the industry nearly died the following year when news of township violence scared hundreds of thousands of visitors away. Cancellations in Cape Town hotels in December, 1985, were running at 70%; hotel occupancy for that entire year was only 38%.

May Surpass 1984 Record

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Many tourism officials, looking at near-capacity hotel and airline bookings, are predicting that this year will surpass the 1984 record.

Mala Mala, a safari camp that charges $300 a night and is a favorite of wealthy Americans, is reserved nearly a year in advance.

“American tour groups we haven’t heard from in two years are calling every day,” a reservation agent for the camp said recently. Mala Mala plans to raise its daily rate to $400 soon.

The Blue Train, a luxury rail line that runs between Cape Town and Johannesburg, is booked solid throughout the high tourist season, which generally coincides with the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, and beyond.

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“You try to book the Blue Train now anytime from October to April and it’s full, full, full, full,” said Horst Witt, a Johannesburg travel agent.

At the Mercy of Headlines

However, tourism here remains at the mercy of the day’s headlines, which are especially unpredictable in a land where most civil rights have been suspended by emergency decree, where thousands have been detained without charge and where guerrillas occasionally plant limpet mines in shopping centers.

“It just takes one incident and it (the tourist boom) stops tomorrow,” Bruno Corte, managing director of the Southern Suns hotel chain, told investment analysts recently.

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Recent bombings in fast-food restaurants and shopping malls, for example, prompted two large tour groups to cancel their trips.

“We try to keep tourism as apolitical as possible,” said Ronel Horne, of the Tourism Board. “But, unfortunately, events do have an effect.”

The board has a dozen offices overseas to extol the virtues of South Africa, from its game parks to its gold mines to its mild weather.

Dollar Remains Strong

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Although it’s expensive to get here, South Africa itself is a bargain these days. It is one of those rare spots where the U.S. dollar remains very strong. An expensive meal runs $25 a person, wines that compare favorably with California’s are less than $5 a bottle, a five-star hotel is less than $100 a night and a Mercedes-Benz can be rented for about $40 a day.

But South African tourism remains a tough sell overseas, especially in the United States, where Congress has stopped direct flights between the two countries and is considering even stiffer sanctions.

“We give out promotional pamphlets and videotapes to travel agents in America, but because we’re the skunk of the world, they usually end up in the back room,” said Noel Celliers, a tour guide in Johannesburg.

With rare exceptions, though, foreign tourists find South Africa a much less forbidding place than they had imagined.

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Relatively Safe

While politics remain tumultuous and bombs still explode every week or so, tourists soon realize that they stand about as much chance of becoming a victim of political trouble in South Africa as being shot to death on a Los Angeles freeway while driving to Disneyland. (The notable exception was the American injured by a land mine on a visit to the rural home of the South African Tourism Board chairman last year.)

“Certainly, we aren’t a Utopia by any means, but it’s not as bad as people think,” said Keith Burton, the Kushins’ tour guide here on the Indian Ocean coast at Plettenberg Bay, one of the richest stretches of real estate in the country.

“Most of the tourists I see are trying to clear up in their mind the difference between what they’ve read and what they’re now seeing. It’s an eye-opener and they’re confused,” said Burton, who, like the Kushins, is white.

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Repeats Official Rationale

The 51-year-old guide tries to help by repeating the government’s rationale for opposing a one-person, one-vote system in South Africa--that blacks, who comprise nearly 80% of the population, couldn’t run this country without fighting among themselves over tribal differences.

“I’ll give you an example,” Burton said. “People do not understand the differences between our black people. There are 10 major groups and there is animosity between them. So when a black policeman arrests someone from a different (black) group and roughs him up, often this is reported as police brutality. In fact, it’s faction brutality.”

Many anti-apartheid leaders would disagree, arguing that black-on-black violence is triggered by dissatisfaction with Pretoria’s rule and frustration with the system that denies them civil rights. That view is not one that Burton mentions as he steers a cream-colored Mercedes-Benz through the lush forests near here, escorting the Kushins to an oyster farm.

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“We didn’t support apartheid, of course, before we came. But actually I don’t think we really knew what apartheid was,” said Kay Kushins, of Walnut Creek, Calif. “Nobody knows the problems they have here. Blacks are not blowing up whites. If anything, blacks are blowing up blacks. That’s something that doesn’t get reported to the people back home.”

Restaurants Integrated

What surprises most visitors is the amount of integration in a society they thought was racially segregated. Most good restaurants in major cities are integrated, as are most theaters, hotels, commuter trains, buses and beaches. Shoppers of all races can be found in most shopping malls.

Jerry Kushins, 69, took photographs of black and white children playing together. “I didn’t think that even existed here, I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “But you’ve got to find these things out for yourself.”

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Many examples of so-called “petty apartheid” have fallen in recent years. But the backbone of apartheid--segregated living areas, schools, hospitals--remains as a deeper part of the society that is not always readily apparent to visitors.

In fact, there are two South Africas. Tourists can--and do--search for lions and cheetah in the interior and bask in the coastal sun without ever seeing the sprawling black townships and homelands where 26 million blacks are forced to live.

Kushins and his wife have been traveling full-time since he sold his shoe manufacturing business in Northern California 11 years ago. They have seen much the world, including seven trips to China, but this was their first visit to South Africa.

“I’m going to urge my friends to come here,” Jerry Kushins said. “It’s one of those destinations where Americans are warmly received, and there aren’t too many of those left.”

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