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South Africa Calmly Awaits Acceptance by U.S. Travelers : Tourism: Americans have not flocked to the nation, but some experts expect ’95 to be a big year.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; <i> Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. </i>

It’s been nine months now since the South African elections that put Nelson Mandela at the nation’s helm, consigned apartheid to the past and affirmed that country as fair game for conscientious American travelers. But instead of flooding the country, American travelers have been trickling in, their numbers steadily increasing but by no means enormous.

Government tourism figures show 16,896 arrivals from North America in July and August, a 21% increase over figures for those two months in 1993. But that’s not much when compared to the tourist traffic from Europe, which sent roughly four times as many travelers to South Africa in the same period.

Dave Herbert, president of African Travel Inc. in Glendale, reports that “1994 for South Africa was actually disappointing,” perhaps because during traditional peak booking months (January through March, South Africa’s summer), the world was waiting to see if violence would flare during the run-up to last April’s elections. Now that that period has passed in relative calm, Herbert says, “next year should be very, very strong. . . . We’re on the edge of great things.”

The big gains in American tourism to South Africa, several observers say, are likely to come in the next year, as tour operators and travelers become more comfortable with the destination and air service continues to increase.

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In fact, assuming political circumstances remain calm, many say the biggest barrier to American tourism advances in 1995 is neither politics nor criminal violence but a sporting event: With matches scheduled throughout the country, the World Cup of rugby in May and June is expected to fill most of the country’s hotel rooms and lodges with non-American sports enthusiasts.

Here’s a quick update for those contemplating a South African journey in the coming year:

Air service: Round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Johannesburg begin at around $2,000, but discounts of several hundred dollars are often available to travelers using package tours.

South African Airways offers four departures to Johannesburg weekly from New York and two from Miami. USAfrica Airways, which started service June 3, 1994 (the first commercial service to the country by a U.S. airline in 10 years), offers five flights weekly from Washington-Dulles International Airport to Johannesburg (a 17-hour trip) and one to Cape Town. Package tours: Most travel agents can offer brochures from several tour operators. One of the largest American-based tour operators is 18-year-old Glendale-based African Travel, which offers 14-day packages (excluding air fare, including land travel within the country and about 20 meals) for about $3,000 per person, double occupancy. (African Travel accepts bookings only through travel agents.)

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Top spots: Most travelers will want to spend at least a few days each in Johannesburg (the principal city, though Pretoria to the north is the nation’s administrative capital) and Cape Town (where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet). There are prime surfing beaches on the Natal Coast near the city of Durban. The “garden route” between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth makes a dramatic drive, dominated by mountains, dunes and beaches. Travelers can visit gold and diamond mines outside Pretoria, and daytime bus tours are frequently offered from Johannesburg to nearby Soweto, the densely populated, poverty-marred site of past political uprisings and government crackdowns.

For game viewing, the most popular destination is Kruger National Park and neighboring private reserves. This is usually a three- or four-day stay, but accommodations vary widely. Within the national park, game is viewed from enclosed vehicles, with no leaving the vehicle or the road and no night-viewing permitted. Lodging is rough-hewn and affordable: About $70 nightly rents a rondavel (a thatched round hut that accommodates two to four people). For more flexible game-viewing and more sophisticated lodgings, there are private lodges--more than a dozen of them--doing business in private game reserve areas along the park’s western edge. Rates run from $200 nightly per person to more than $550 (meals and guided viewing excursions included).

Climate and timing: For game viewing, the best months are May to the end of September, when the air is dry, the evenings cool and the animals more likely to congregate at water holes. For beach-oriented travels, January to April are prime months. Most comfortable months all around are probably April, May, September and October.

Politics and crime: In an Oct. 24 update, the U.S. State Department noted that political violence “has significantly decreased” in most of South Africa since the 1994 elections, adding that “the areas most frequented by tourists, such as major hotels, game parks and beaches, have not been, to date, affected by political or factional violence.” The highest incidence of violence, the State Department says, is in the province of Kwazulu/Natal, particularly in townships near Durban. As in most nations, police report nonpolitical criminal activity in major cities, often in areas surrounding hotels.

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More information: The South African Tourist Board, 9841 Airport Blvd., Suite 1524, Los Angeles 90045; tel. (310) 641-8444 or (800) 782-9772.


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