The Africa Travel Association says the time is ripe for the continent to establish itself as the world?s premiere tourist destination. The ATA, based in New York, has for decades promoted Africa and its numerous attractions. But a number of research studies show most international tourists continue to shy away from visiting African countries because they don?t think they?ll be safe there. The ATA, though, says Africa has an undeserved reputation for being ridden with crime.

With all eyes on South Africa as it builds towards its historic hosting of the Soccer World Cup in 2010, reports are rife in the international media warning potential visitors about the country?s high crime rate.

In major global publications, journalists write articles to the effect that every day more than 300 murders and violent attacks happen in South Africa. They constantly label it as ?one of the three most dangerous countries on earth,? along with Iraq - where forces of that country and the United States are battling Islamic militants - and Colombia, where there?s conflict between state forces, anti-government insurgent groups and illegal paramilitaries funded by the cocaine trade.

Gert Oosthuizen, South Africa?s deputy sports minister, acknowledges that, like most developing countries, his homeland has a ?crime challenge.? However, he says it?s ?ridiculous? to equate South Africa with ?war zones,? emphasizing that his government and its security force have crime ?under control.?

But Maxwell Eliogu, a Ghanaian based in Washington, D.C., who manages a company that promotes travel to Africa, says the daily reports of murder, rape and carjacking originating from South Africa ?are not doing Africa any favors.?

?The entire continent is being painted with the same brush? as a result of the crime situation in South Africa, Eliogu says.

?Every day we hear the stories of the terrible murders in South Africa, of the armed robberies and rapes. We hear that the country is the murder capital of the world. When foreigners see these reports, they think the whole of Africa is full of crime, that all of Africa is dangerous. Because many of them consider Africa to be one country.?

Second highest murder rate in world

According to statistics compiled by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, South Africa and Africa as a whole have lower rates of violent crime than some South American countries. In Brazil, for example, about 55,000 people are murdered annually, while there are approximately 20,000 murders each year in South Africa. But some parties concerned about crime in South Africa point out that Brazil, home to an estimated 200 million people, is one of the most populous countries in the world, whereas the African nation has a population of just 45 million people. If the population factor is taken into account, security experts say, then South Africa has the second highest per capita murder rate in the world, behind only Colombia.

Yet the country?s tourism ministry maintains that international travelers are flocking to South Africa in ?record numbers? to enjoy its beautiful beaches, famed wildlife and cultural diversity. The ministry says almost nine million foreigners visited last year, up from 8.4 million in 2006, and that this number is expected to increase to 10 million visitors ahead of the 2010 World Cup.

?South Africa is undoubtedly the tourism hub of Africa at the moment,? says Brad Ford, who operates one of the United States? top travel companies. He adds that his firm?s trips to the country have ?skyrocketed? in recent times.

But despite the optimism reflected in soaring visitor numbers, the World Economic Forum?s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index has ranked the country extremely poorly in terms of safety and security of tourists: 123rd out of the 130 countries reviewed. In the ?reliability of police service? section, South Africa was placed at number 102 ? behind even Kenya and Pakistan, countries noted for the corruption and inefficiency of their security services.

International tourism expert Peter Koblmiller, who?s also the editor of the German tourism magazine Kaapstadt, told South Africa?s Weekend Argus newspaper that tourists were not visiting South Africa because of the high crime rate and media reports of attacks on international tourists in the country.

Koblmiller also insists that many of the nine million foreigners registered by the authorities as having visited the country last year were not international tourists, but rather people from neighboring countries who were seeking jobs or making short shopping trips.

Alvin Kushner, chairman of the Cape Town Tour Operators Association, agrees with Koblmiller?s views. He says many foreign tour groups are canceling visits to South Africa because they fear criminal attacks.

South African officials blame the media for ?exaggerating? crime levels and for ?unfairly targeting? their country because of its high profile hosting of the Soccer World Cup.

?(It?s) not entirely correct to say (crime) is a South African or African problem; it?s a worldwide problem. In the city of New York there are no-go areas, and nobody?s saying anything about that,? Oosthuizen comments.

Les de Villiers, the South African author of several guidebooks and a tourism consultant based in the U.S. who encourages Americans to visit Africa, says crime is indeed a ?fact of life? in South Africa ? but no more so than in most other parts of the globe. He?s convinced that it?s safe to visit?. if tourists take certain ?precautions.?

?As long as you go out there and you?re not going to be a babe in the woods and go into a dark street at midnight, and expect not to be in danger, I think you will have a safe trip,? de Villiers says.

However, a recent spate of robberies of tourists in Johannesburg has done little to assuage international concerns ahead of the World Cup.

Oosthuizen, though, maintains that crime rates have dropped since his government increased police numbers.

?No matter what the truth is,? says Eliogu, ?South Africa?s image as one of the worst places in the world in terms of crime? is ?very damaging? to the entire continent.

Some international tourists ?ignoring security paranoia?

Members of the global travel industry say post-election violence in Kenya, once one of Africa?s leading travel destinations, and also attacks on foreigners living in South Africa, severely damaged the image of Africa as a whole and resulted in tourists canceling their visits to Africa.

Tour operator Brad Ford says Americans especially are very nervous about traveling to countries where there are even ?slight? security concerns or political ?instability.?

But he declares that travelers of other nationalities seem more willing to throw caution to the wind.

?We?re finding that Canadians really aren?t all that concerned about what?s happening in Kenya in terms of violence or any kind of upset. They?re still traveling to Kenya and they still insist on traveling to Kenya (and to Africa).?

Ford says many international travelers are paying less attention to media reports about instability in Africa, and are placing more emphasis on first-hand experience of local conditions at tourist destinations.

?Some of the reports that happen on the news, through some of the more popular international news organizations, may be a little bit different from what you experience when you?re actually speaking with a local in the community that you travel to,? he says.

Rina Paterno, owner of a New York-based travel agency, says the first question potential clients still ask her when she suggests a holiday in Africa is, ?Is it safe

She says she sets their minds at ease by telling them about her various trips to Africa and how safe she felt everywhere she went on the continent.

?After speaking with people who?ve experienced Africa first-hand, the clients tend to ignore all the paranoia about security in Africa,? Paterno says.

Amadou Gallo Fall is a former leading basketball player in the United States and is director of scouting for the Dallas Mavericks. In this capacity, the Senegalese native often accompanies some of America?s top basketball players on tours of various African countries. Initially, he says, some of them are apprehensive and wonder whether it?s safe, but Fall reassures them by telling them that ?Africa is no more dangerous than any other place in the world.?

He says, ?My experience has been that every single person that has traveled there with us has really had a good time and they all want to come back.?