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February 8, 2016updated Feb 19, 2016

Sthu Zungu, President South Africa Tourism North America

By Chris Boyle

Sthu Zungu

South Africa Tourism, North America

What does selling luxury cars have to do with selling a destination? Sthu Zungu knows. As President of South Africa Tourism’s office in New York she is using her background with luxury automaker BMW to put her country’s tourism growth in the fast lane. Recently the dynamic marketer pulled to the curb for a lunch at the Four Seasons Restaurant Pool Room with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan where they had a wide-ranging discussion.

ET: What was your background?

Sthu Zungu: I started with BMW after college. I began as a marketing analyst, which was very interesting as I was responsible for tracking competitive companies. Then I worked on corporate strategy supporting the CEO of BMW South Africa. I also worked in Munich for a year and was part of the launch team of the Mini. It was a great way to learn about how luxury products should be presented. South Africans love quality products and BMW understood this.

ET: What made your switch from luxury cars to luxury tourism?

Sthu Zungu: BMW chose me more than I chose them. When I came out of school I was fortunate to have a number of offers, so that goes to the question, “Am I a car person?” When the headhunter (for South Africa tourism) called I wasn’t sure I wanted to go overseas again. In South Africa then and today there was a great sense of possibility. Before people wouldn’t have wanted a government job. It would have been seen as more administrative. But I also needed something to give me a greater purpose, and marketing my country does that. When I saw 911 I knew New York and the American people would bounce back. I was fascinated by how countries and cities compete. I wanted to make the South Africa brand strong.

ET: And where did you start with South Africa Tourism?

Sthu Zungu: They offered me Italy.

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ET: Were there any similarities between marketing tourism and cars?

Sthu Zungu: From BMW I had a firm base of marketing principals I could apply. The idea of marketing a luxury product and the stature that product carries. With South Africa Tourism I felt like I was a curator of experiences. It was a chance to experiment.

ET: Many say the London Olympics was a bust for tourism and the economy. How did the World Cup (Football) work out for South Africa?

Sthu Zungu: The World Cup gave us the impetus to strengthen our infrastructure. You always hear when countries host a big event that their visitors dip. With us it’s been the reverse, and the growth has continued. It lifted the destination. People had South Africa in their face every day during the tournament. They kept seeing this country that was modern and everything worked and they saw people filling the stadium who went home after the game and more people the next day. It showed, “I will be fine if I drink the water.” We have the infrastructure and give them a comfortable step into Africa. Brand awareness is at an all-time high of 84 percent, with positivity also at an all-time high of 48 percent.

ET: How did it impact visitor numbers?

Sthu Zungu: The U.S. is now South Africa’s second largest source market for international visitors and continues to grow, eclipsing even the 2010 arrivals which included the FIFA World Cup. In 2011 we saw a 2% increase over 2010 and 2012 year to date as of April is already up 17%. South Africa’s tourism has come a long way and it is surpassing all expectations. South Africa is the most developed for tourism in the sub-Sahara.

ET: Are there business and investment opportunities?

Sthu Zungu: We see people come back on business and come back and buy homes. We see people come for board meetings and they come back and make investments. We see people come for tourism and come back to invest. We see people who come for business and then bring their families back for tourism.

ET: Do you have any future targets for tourism growth?

Sthu Zungu: Yes, our Minister believes tourism should be accountable. South Africa’s 2020 tourism targets include five million international tourist arrivals, 18 million domestic tourists and 54 million domestic trips which will position South Africa as a globally recognized tourism destination brand. We continue to grow and continues to surpass the world average growth rate for tourism.

ET: Can you give me an example of some recent events that helped the brand?

Sthu Zungu: We have been deliberate to build our destination as accessible for the luxury consumer, that they can have all of the comforts they want. Last year South Africa was featured on The Bachelor. Now we know many if not most of the 20 million viewers will never go to South Africa but it was showing South Africa in a different light and we were changing perceptions. Then, people see Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton come. Then the BRIC countries are now the BRICS, and the S is South Africa. You put that all together and it is a strong message.

ET: South Africa is famous for its safari tourism, luxury lodges and the scenery and wine country of the cape. Are there any other compelling reasons to visit?

Sthu Zungu: If you start thinking about the world we live in, South Africa has an interesting story. South Africa is a strong, contemporary success story. Gandhi said he learned about peaceful resistance from his time in South Africa. South Africa has made a peaceful and successful transition. The only way to understand this important story is to come to South Africa and meet the people.

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