South African Tourism

South African Tourism Reports That US Was Top Overseas Market

As destinations around the globe accelerate tourism sector recovery efforts following more than two years of the pandemic and related restrictions, South African Tourism released an encouraging report highlighting that for the first time, the US was its top source market for overseas travel.

In 2021, the US bested the UK who has held this top spot since 1994, showing a 14% increase in arrivals vs. previous year.

The US market’s outstanding performance owes a lot to both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines who continued to service the destination during the November to December rise of the Omicron variant. This despite South Africa being placed on many nations’ red lists alongside other Southern African countries. Both carriers are committed to the destination and have announced expanded service and new routes for 2022. In 2021, the USA also topped the tourist revenue among the overseas markets with R2.3 billion, which was driven by average tourist spending in South Africa being higher than pre-pandemic levels up to R31 100 from R22 900 in 2019. The increase in tourist spend from the USA was driven by leisure tourism activities (17%) and shopping (22%), with the share of wallet being maintained or increasing respectively from 2019, while other categories saw a declining share of wallet in 2021. 

“This report indicates that our diligent marketing and promotional efforts for South Africa are paying off,” said Jerry Mpufane, President South African Tourism North America Hub.

“South Africa remains a bucket list destination and as a result, continues to win coveted travel and hospitality accolades, which go a long way in establishing confidence in what we have to offer. When you couple that with increased connectivity provided by our airline partners at United and Delta and the consistent energy and enthusiasm for the destination shown by US travel advisors and tour operators, the future looks bright as we continue our recovery efforts.”

The release of this report comes on the heels of the destination announcing the end of all COVID-19 restrictions. These include the removal of the mask-wearing mandate and limits on gatherings and border checks for COVID-19 – and the need to be vaccinated to enter South Africa – clearing the way for visitors to breathe in South Africa’s wide open spaces and the allow the return of some of the destination’s beloved events.

South Africa is a top bucket-list destination loved for world-class travel, a wide variety of experiences, including exclusive game reserves, and affordable-luxury accommodation options, among the US travelers. The destination is rich in active adventure, cultural, and historical offerings. It also puts tourists centre stage as they get immersed in the food, language, history, great music, fashion, arts and culture while also offering top-end wildlife, beach, and active adventure experiences that include the great outdoors, hiking trails, driving along the coastline, and other thrilling experiences. Add to this the welcoming and friendly people, great weather, value for money for tourists, and natural attractions and it is the perfect holiday destination. In 2021, as it was in 2019, eating out, shopping, wildlife viewing, natural attractions, and socializing were among the Top 5 activities and drove the demand that led to the bumper year of US arrivals. 


The tourist profile and trends taken from SA Tourism’s Departure Survey showed that the US market was and continues to be primarily driven by first-time travelers, who are under 45 years old and looking to explore South Africa on holiday for a week or two; either on a solo adventure or on vacation with a loved one. In 2019, more than two-thirds of tourists from the US were first-time visitors (68.3%), and this grew to 70.1% in 2021.

Tourist traveling alone or with a spouse or partner in both years (up from 75.1% in 2019 to 79.4% in 2021). More than half of tourists travel to South Africa on holiday (relatively unchanged respectively). With a majority of tourists aged over 45 (down slightly from 57.7% in 2019 to 52.5% in 2021).


Close to three-quarters of arrivals to South Africa in 2021 had planned, decided, and booked their travel to South Africa more than a year in advance. This contrasts with pre-pandemic patterns in 2019, when South Africa saw shrinking decision and booking cycles among American tourists. 

Pre-pandemic, consistently around 40% the US tourists booked their travel between 4 to 12 months ahead of travel. It is, therefore, anticipated that travellers will revert to the short booking cycle trend as travel normalises in coming years.


In 2021, the top accommodation choice was staying with friends and family (0.5 million bed nights – 41% share). However, game lodges had the most growth (with share of bed nights up 5% from 2019). Visiting friends and relatives (VFR) also grew significantly (up 13% from 2019).

This trend can be attributed to the need to reconnect, alongside health concerns brought about by the pandemic, and the comfort and peace of mind that comes from staying with people one knows and trusts. When it came to paid accommodation, hotels topped the list with 248 500 bed nights (19% share in 2021, down from 28% in 2019).


n 2019, the Western Cape overtook Gauteng as the most visited province, with 67% share of US arrivals. Western Cape province also led the attractions with 9 of the Top 10 attractions visited. V&A Waterfront, Cape Point, Cape Town City Centre, Camps Bay, and Table Mountain were the most visited attractions in 2019 and have consistently been the Top 5 attractions for the American traveler in 2021. Gauteng received 46% of US arrivals in 2021, returning to its place as the top province for US tourists. Western Cape came a close 2nd with a 44% of arrivals and still led in total spend (down to 28% share of spend from 51% in 2019)

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