South Africa – The adventure capital of the world?

sa tourism

Adventure Tourism is a major tourism drawcard in a traveller’s itinerary. South Africa fares well on the world stage, with leadership on adventure offerings among the top competing destinations across the globe.

South Africa’s tourism attractiveness and appeal have adventure and wildlife as key differentiators and seeks to lead in these offerings as measured in SA Tourism’s Brand Tracker.

Adventure and wildlife are key differentiators when it comes to South Africa’s attractiveness and appeal as a tourism destination.  Based on South African Tourism’s Brand Tracker these take the lead. Brand Tracker Survey is an international brand assessment to determine the appeal and demand creation within the markets where South African Tourism operates.

The full year 2023  (January to December ) report results show that South Africa is among the leading adventure destinations for travellers from across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Brazil, Japan, the UK, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The United World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines adventure tourism as; “a type of tourism which usually takes place in destinations with specific geographic features and landscape and tends to be associated with physical activity, cultural exchange, interaction and engagement with nature. This experience may involve some kind of real or perceived risk and may require significant physical and/or mental effort. Adventure tourism generally includes outdoor activities such as mountaineering, trekking, bungee jumping, rock climbing, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking, bushwalking, and scuba diving. Likewise, some indoor adventure tourism activities may also be practised.”[1]

How lucrative is adventure tourism?

Adventure tourists make up 8.8% of tourists to South Africa, which is 722,900 of the 8.2 million arrivals in 2023. Adventure tourists to South Africa stay five nights longer and spend almost three times more than the average tourist to South Africa. During this period, they stayed 19 nights on average, well over the 14 nights by all tourists. They spent R30 000 on average compared to the R11 800 spent by the average overall tourist.

Note: Adventure tourists refers to all international tourists who engaged in adventure activities as per the SA Tourism Departure Survey. All the tourists who did not engage in adventure activities are then compared to the adventure tourists for the analysis below.

Adventure tourists spending in paid accommodation is also lucrative; they spend on average 14 nights (compared to 6 nights spent by the average tourist) in paid accommodation. Adventure tourists to South Africa have a share of 23% of paid bednights.

Where are the adventure tourists from?

Europe provides the highest number of tourists travelling to South Africa for adventure travel (468,800 of the 722,900 overall). Norway, Switzerland, France, Sweden, and Germany are among the markets with the highest proportion of adventure travellers, and 14 of the top 15 adventure markets by incidence were in Europe. Overall, in 2023, almost two-thirds (65%) of adventure tourists in South Africa were from Europe, up from 60% pre-pandemic in 2019. Canada was the only non-European market in the top 15 and North America was the region supplying the second-highest number of adventure tourists (just over 107,000 arrivals and a share of 15%), followed by Africa with 77,400 tourists and a share of 11%. Asia, Australasia, the Middle East, and South America all combined, contribute just 10% of all adventure tourists.

Top 10 by Volume in 2023Top 10 by Incidence in 2023
MarketNumber of Adventure TouristsShare of Adventure TouristsMarketNumber of Adventure TouristsIncidence / Proportion of Adventure Tourists
UK124 42017,2%Norway6 43052%
Germany103 62014,3%Switzerland19 27049%
USA88 74012,3%France50 15048%
Netherlands51 4407,1%Sweden10 98047%
France50 1506,9%Germany103 62047%
Lesotho22 3703,1%Netherlands51 44046%
Italy19 7102,7%Austria8 58044%
Switzerland19 2702,7%Finland2 68044%
Canada18 3002,5%Spain12 27043%
Australia16 9402,3%Belgium16 62041%

Source: SA Tourism Departure Survey 2023

Despite the incidence or proportion of adventure tourists being dominated by Europe; the USA, Lesotho, Canada, and Australia have the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 10th highest number of adventure tourists by sheer number of tourists. The US was behind the UK and Germany, and ahead of the Netherlands and France, which round out the top 5.

The proportion speaks to the share of adventure tourists per country while the volume speaks to the actual numbers. The volume is heavily influenced by the number of total arrivals from that country overall.

Note: As an example, Zimbabwe sent over 2.1 million tourists to South Africa but a lower proportion of that number would be adventure tourists (13,700 tourists which is an incidence or proportion of 0.06%) which is a low incidence but a high number compared to Belgium that sent about 46 350 tourists in 2023, of that 16,620 are adventure tourists and this is an incidence or proportion of over a third (36%).

Is adventure tourism growing?

Europe and Africa are key drivers of growth, and drivers of the recovery to 2019 levels with 101% and 90% recovery of adventure tourist volumes respectively. The markets leading the recovery were eSwatini (+332%), Russia (+246%), Namibia (+220%), UAE (+215%), and DRC (+208%). There are 6 other fully recovered markets, namely New Zealand, Uganda, Finland, Lesotho, Turkey, and Switzerland.

Adventure tourists are mostly first-timers, with this being true both pre-pandemic and in 2023 (59% compared to 67% in 2019). In 2023 the profile of adventure tourists was dominated by leisure tourists more than two-thirds of all adventure travel was for Holiday purposes and a further 18% were VFR (Visiting friends and relatives) tourists. Post-pandemic there has been a huge increase in adventure tourists over 35 years, from over a third (37%) in 2019 up to 41% in 2021, and then 49% in 2022, and finally 57% in 2023. The youth adventure market has consistently gotten smaller and there is an opportunity to target them with fresh experiences that augment technology and exploration within the destination.

Where in South Africa is adventure dominant?

For the period January to December 2023 Western Cape was s the adventure capital of South Africa with 85% of all the adventure tourists, an estimated 614 500 tourists and this represents a recovery of 82% of the numbers seen in 2019. The province collected 62% of the overall spend by adventure tourists. This is driven by the adventure tourists spending on average R22 200 leading to a total of R13.5 billion Northern Cape lead on average spend with R26 700 in 2023 (although the volume was low) more than three times the average spend pre-pandemic in 2019. Western Cape also saw the highest number of bed nights among the provinces with bed nights recovery in the market at 72%.

Definition: Bed nights: this is a measure of number of beds occupied.

The top attractions in the country overall for adventure tourists were V&A Waterfront, Camps Bay, Cape Point, Table Mountain, Clifton Beach, and Cango Caves and this speaks to the high proportion of adventure tourists visiting Western Cape. In fact, the top 13 attractions were within the Western Cape. Overall tourists mostly visit the same attractions however except for Malls, Museums, and Casinos; the adventure tourists are more inclined to these outdoor attractions. Outside of the Western Cape, Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon ‘God’s Window’ – Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Addo Elephant Park, and Storm’s River are the top 5 attractions. Hazyview, Bloukrans Bridge – Tsitsikamma Tree Top Canopy, and Tour of Soweto also feature

Conclusion

South Africa is well placed to lead in adventure tourism and the adventure tourist spend is higher, with these tourists staying longer and spending more than other tourists. While a lot of work has gone into profiling South Africa’s adventure offerings, there is an opportunity for the sector to elevate its marketing efforts to realise the full returns from this category of travellers. By making it prominent in the marketing materials we can draw more eyeballs and numbers to the destination. The destination has 3,000km of beach/shoreline[2] with the potential for a variety of tourist experiences including surfing, zip-lining, bungee jumping, kayaking and diving and much more. South Africa also has 14 561 named mountain peaks[3] and these enable the development of hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking trails. All these natural endowments enable business and job creation opportunities that will attract more of the world to our destination and empower the citizens seeking to welcome them. Adventure tourism is the new gold, tourists across the globe are seeking experiences over products and prioritising their spending on unique and exciting activities, this trend has been gaining and will continue and allow the country to drive growth following full recovery from the pandemic.

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