Lake Malawi has a host of offerings for different budgets from luxury lodges to family hotels.

Lilongwe - What’s not to like about Malawi? Not much really – it’s warm, it’s beautiful, it’s reasonably priced, South Africans don’t need a visa to go there... and its people are friendly. Most of all it’s safe – something we South Africans always worry about.

So, why then, are South Africans not going to the “warm heart of Africa” as the country calls itself?

Perhaps it’s because travellers from this country now have many more options, perhaps it’s because the Malawians are not marketing themselves strongly enough.

That is all about to change as new Tourism Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa moves to overhaul the country’s marketing campaigns and particularly to target South Africans, who are still the country’s biggest source of tourism earnings.

Nankhumwa says Malawi has an “unparallelled variety” of attractions – from the highlands to Lake Malawi to the wildlife experience.

After five days in the country, I was struck by a number of things which will be of interest to South Africans.

Firstly, the country really is the warm heart of Africa – both in climate terms and in the hospitality and friendliness of its people, who always seem to be smiling. Despite the fact that 75 percent of Malawi’s people live in rural areas and battle against poverty, crime is low.

Secondly, you don’t need a visa to visit Malawi – which is an increasingly important consideration for South Africans who feel they are getting gouged by virtually every foreign destination they want to visit.

Malawian Airlines, the successor to Air Malawi (which was put into liquidation) launched earlier this year, after the Malawi government went into partnership with Ethiopian Airlines. Malawian now operates a Boeing 737-800 on a daily service to Joburg from the capital Lilongwe, which goes via the commercial hub, Blantyre. Additionally, a Bombardier Q400 propjet aircraft services the shorter routes.

Air fares are around R6 000 return for the two-hour trip – but Malawian and a number of tour operators are putting together a host of special deals to entice South Africans.

Travelling there by road is an adventurous but time-consuming option, as you’d have to travel through Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The roads are generally in good repair between the main centres, although in some rural areas they are bad. Don’t count on working out travelling time by distances – rather ask a local how far away (in hours) a place is.

Speeds are very low because the roads are crowded with pedestrians and cyclists. Yet everybody is chilled when they drive.

In Malawi, the rand is recognised – and you’ll get around 40 Malawian kwacha for every rand. Prices, generally, are on a par with South Africa when it comes to accommodation. In our brief visit, we were surprised by the quality of the food wherever we stopped: ingredients were fresh and preparation good. Malawi has a unique tourism product – there really is nowhere else (other than perhaps Zimbabwe and its Lake Kariba doesn’t hold a candle to the Lake Malawi experience) like it.

Saturday Star