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Tourism Rising in South Africa

The South African government recently announced that tourist arrivals over the past year rose by 15 percent, one of the highest growth rates in the world. In fact, tourism in South Africa has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past five years and is set to surpass gold as one of the country's top foreign exchange earners. VOA's Scott Bobb takes a look at the industry and the reasons behind its explosive growth.

South Africa is known around the world for its nature preserves teeming with lions, leopards, elephants and other animals.

The country also draws millions of tourists a year to its beaches and to fish in the waters of two oceans.

More than eight million tourists visited South Africa last year, two and-a-half million more than five years ago. And they are not just coming for the traditional attractions.

People around the world followed the struggle by South Africans against apartheid. They remember the popular uprisings and bloody incidents that galvanized the nation, such as the police shooting of several dozen school children in Soweto in 1976.

The shooting is commemorated at a museum named after a 13-year-old boy who was killed that day, Hendreik Peterson.

Tour guide Snowy recalls, "The June '76 riots that emanated because of the introduction of Afrikaans (in the schools) then catapulted the whole movement. We all went into struggle and we all were awakened."

Snowy says visitors often ask her if the exhibit evoke painful memories. "It does hurt, the memories do hurt but that is what museums and places of national significance remind us about."

Her guests, Guys and Lieve from Belgium, feel the same emotions. Thecouple said, "It touched the heart. When you speak of the young, of Soweto, of the young boy who dies here. I think, tomorrow, it lives in here,"

Tourists flock to the Soweto home of anti-apartheid icon and democratic South Africa's first president, Nelson Mandela. They hear personal stories about the struggle for freedom by Mandela and other leaders from this community.

Many tourists travel to Capetown in the south and take the boat ride to Robben Island. This is the former high-security prison where Mandela and other freedom fighters spent much of their adult lives before they were freed to negotiate the transition to democracy in 1994.

Moeketsi Mosola is the head of South Africa Tourism agency. He says tourism began to boom after extensive research revealed some surprising facts about what potential tourists were looking for. "Travelers today want more. They are no longer happy in just being passive in destinations where they decide to travel. They want to engage with the community. They want to know how people live because it is in the process of sharing with their hosts that they learn so much about themselves and about their own country."

The government has also been developing other tourist attractions. History buffs now visit the sites of famous battles between the Zulu, the Boer and the British settlers.

Others visit the Cradle of Humankind, outside Johannesburg. It contains one of the largest collections in the world of bones from the ancestors of humans, called hominids.

Hominid remains more than three million years old have been found here. Tour guide Gift Sibanda said, "Sterkfontein Caves is a fossil treasure trove. About 45 percent of hominid fossils in the world were found around this area and the heart of it is Sterkfontein."

South Africa is expected to draw even more tourists in three years when it hosts the soccer World Cup championship. Moeketsi Mosola promises a world class event. "This is a World Cup that is not going to be like anything that you've ever seen. This World Cup is going to have an African look and feel."

Officials hope that sports fans coming for the World Cup will also visit some of South Africa's many attractions.