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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 06:35 GMT 07:35 UK
South Africa's next big thing
Shola Olowu byline pic
By Shola Olowu
BBC business reporter

A tourist taking pictures at Robben Island prison
The past ten years have seen tourists flood to South Africa

Having spent most of his adult life working in South Africa's national parks, Bernard Marobe knew that the abundant wildlife draw visitors at any time of year.

Three years ago Bernard decided he wanted to play a bigger role in the tourism industry: Afterall, tourism is big game in South Africa.

Mr Marobe set up Mankwi Safari at the Pilanesburg National Park and in so doing became South Africa's first black safari operator.

"I knew deep down into my heart that this was going to be a real success," he says.

"I sold two of my cars, and I sold my house. Between me and my partner we managed to raise about 350,000 rand ($53,000; 29,000) to start this operation.

"Had I had a wife at that time I could have even sold my wife."

Black participation

Yet ten years after the end of apartheid, black participation in South Africa's tourism industry is still woefully limited.

"The tourism industry in our country is still lily-white," Bernard says. "It's still owned and controlled by the white people."

That's why the government's black economic empowerment programme is compelling tourism firms, just like those in other sectors, to open their doors to the black majority.

More importantly, with unemployment running at around 40%, it wants more black South Africans to follow Bernard's example and become entrepreneurs.

Seeking the money

But there are obstacles to black ownership in South Africa's economy - not least the legacy of apartheid, which left millions of blacks with few skills and little education.

The driver of a safari vehicle
Black entrepreneurs are carving out a place in the tourism business
And the biggest stumbling block is access to finance.

Under the previous regime, many black people were not allowed to own property, and without collateral to put up for a loan they now struggle to get financing to start up their own businesses.

SA Tourism is one organisation trying to promote black empowerment in the tourism industry, in part by seeking ways to bridge the finance gap.

Chief Executive Cheryl Carolus - formerly a senior African National Congress official and South Africa's High Commissioner to the UK - says the banking sector must be given incentives to come on board.

"What we're now doing is talking to the banks and explaining to them that this is a highly bankable sector and it makes business sense," she says.

"The banks who get in first will be the ones that become seen as the tourism banks, and therefore will get most of the business in one of the fastest growing sectors in our economy."

From a trickle to a flood

The end of apartheid has made South Africa an increasingly popular tourist destination, and growth in the industry continues to outstrip the national average.

Mandela's cell in Robben Island prison
Nelson Mandela's former prison cell is now a tourist attraction
The sector now contributes about 75bn rand to the country's economy every year, and employs 4% of the population.

But the government's own targets mean efforts to change the make-up of the industry and the overall economy will not occur until 2014.

In the meantime, it will be down to individuals like Bernard to carve out a stake for the black majority in the booming tourism business.

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