5 key takeaways on South African tourism in 2023

The Soweto Towers, one of South Africa’s popular tourist destination in Johannesburg. Picture: Unsplash

The Soweto Towers, one of South Africa’s popular tourist destination in Johannesburg. Picture: Unsplash

Published Dec 28, 2023


Although South Africa has not had the same number of tourists coming into the country as it did before Covid-19, the country remains an attractive destination for domestic and international travellers, the Tourism Ministry says.

The ministry said that while recovery towards pre-Covid-19 numbers was encouraging, with the performance being 17.6% lower compared to the same period in 2019, tourism’s momentum was rising.

The numbers showed that the tourism sector was successfully driving travel to South Africa while shaping cultural exchanges and contributing to inclusive economic growth.

This follows Statistics South Africa’s recently release international arrival figures for January to November 2023.

The ministry said the statistics showed that international tourist arrivals from January to November 2023 totalled 7.6 million, representing a 51.8% increase when compared with the same period in 2022.

Minister Patricia de Lille said it was evident that the country remained attractive and that more could be unlocked with more policy and regulation revisions.

Five key takeaways on South African tourism in 2023, according to the ministry:

Africa continues to lead the way

South Africa welcomed 5.8 million visitors from the rest of Africa during the 11 months of 2023, marking a significant 75.5% of all arrivals compared to the same period in 2022.

Within the African region, Zimbabwe and Kenya stood out for their remarkable growth. Zimbabwe saw an exceptional 77.5% increase in tourist arrivals, totalling 1.9 million, while Kenya recorded a 94.2% surge, reaching 37 414 arrivals.

“I am so pleased by these numbers from the rest of the African continent. We view the region as very significant and important. Kenya’s remarkable performance can be attributed to the strategic decision by government to simplify the visa regime earlier this year as well as targeted and effective insights-driven marketing campaigns,” De Lille said.

The minister said that overall, through focused marketing, various collaborations and leveraging various strategic opportunities by the Department of Tourism, South African Tourism and the broader tourism sector, had been able to achieve the impressive results on the continent.

The Americas exhibit strong momentum

Tourist arrivals from the Americas between January and November this year registered at 411 254, reflecting a 44.1% growth. The US contributed the most arrivals – 320 948 – marking a 39.5% increase.

“The US remains a top international source market for South Africa and has been recording robust steady growth in arrivals in 2023. Based on our December projections, we anticipate recording our 2019 pre-pandemic arrivals well ahead of the forecasted recovery mooted for the 2024/2025 financial year,” said the minister.

De Lille said they were proud of the work done by the team working collaboratively alongside their stakeholders in the public and private sector to deliver exciting consumer and trade-facing projects to drive brand affinity and distribution channel initiatives to reignite this market.

European markets show strength

With 1.1 million tourist arrivals, Europe contributed to 14.6% of the arrivals during the first 11 months of 2023. This was a 43.2% increase compared to last year.

The UK remained the top European source market, with 315 054 tourists choosing South Africa, marking a 30.4% growth.

From Germany, there was a 47.9% increase in arrivals, amounting to 219 971 tourists. This was followed by visitors from the Netherlands – an increase of 48.4%, or 117 948 tourist arrivals – contributing towards a dramatic growth of 83.9% (25 116 arrivals).

“Europe continues to show strong growth and recovery when compared to the same period in 2022. Notably, the Netherlands has achieved 90% of 2019 arrivals, solidifying their position as the fourth largest international market behind the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Germany.

“This recovery can be attributed to consistent efforts to showcase South Africa as a welcoming, responsible tourism destination, highlighting experiences that align with intrepid, green economy conscious travellers,” said De Lille.

Noteworthy growth from the Asia markets

The ministry said Asian markets had also shown significant growth, with 182 497 arrivals from the region representing an astounding 72.6% increase.

In the region, India led the way with 73 037 tourists, a 46.3% growth, closely followed by China, which saw a massive 215.7% surge, amounting to 34 669 arrivals.

“The performance highlights South Africa’s charm as well as magnetism as a tourism destination for tourists coming from this region.

“The rich and varied cultural heritage, historical connections, natural beauty and diversity continue to make our country very attractive to travellers coming from this region,” said the minister.

She said the reopening of the Chinese market and the initiation of direct flight routes had catalysed a resurgence in arrivals, highlighting the vast potential and significance of the market to South African tourism.

Middle East registers solid gains

The Middle East saw a robust increase – 51 779 arrivals, or 37.5% growth. South Africa received 15 507 arrivals from Saudi Arabia marking an increase of 40.9%. The United Arab Emirates also showed a remarkable 114.2% growth, accounting for 6 360 arrivals.

De Lille said she was committed to working with all partners and government colleagues to unlock barriers such as visa regulations, safety concerns and limited air access and air lift, so that they could grow the sector and meaningfully contribute to the country’s economy.

“Our country offers unique and undeniable breath-taking landscapes and tourism products and experiences. We also thank all the South Africans for their continuous hospitality and extending a warm welcome to all our visitors,” she said.