When visiting South Africa's famous Kruger National Park, you are sure to spot an iconic Bosloerie, one of the many treasures of this diverse country.

When visiting South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, you are sure to spot the iconic Bosloerie, one of the many treasures of this diverse country. © Johan Fourie

It’s only when you get to travel in other countries that you realise how fortunate visitors to South Africa are. Make no mistake, there are many parts of the world worth seeing, not least the rural towns and landscapes of the US where Helanya and I recently travelled. But a list released October 16 by Condé Nast Traveler shows just how much South Africa has to offer: three of the world’s top four hotels and restaurants are found in South Africa. La Residence in Franschhoek, a scenic town in the Cape’s winelands, shares first prize with a hotel in New Zealand. Singita Sabi Sand, a game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park, and Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Resort outside Clanwilliam on South Africa’s west coast, are joint third. Three other South African hotels and resorts are also included in the Top 30, while Cape Town is ranked 11th of all cities/towns in the world. (San Miguel de Allende in Mexico is first.)

Why could so many South African hotels and resorts do so well, even ones that are not familiar in South Africa? The sceptic may say that it’s due to small sample sizes. The list is based on a Condé Nast Reader Choice survey. They claim to have received more than 1.3 million votes from 80 000 readers. I’m not sure how many of these 80 000 voted for La Residence. Nevertheless, these hotels and resorts are not one-shot wonders; they’ve performed admirably over the last few years (the survey has been running since 1986). Even if only a few voted, these visitors have been sufficiently impressed by the service, food, architecture, activities and other characteristics required for a high ranking; remember, in small samples, an outlier at the bottom can have devastating consequences.

No, this is not a statistical fluke but is, instead, a remarkable achievement, and one that we should be rightly proud of. (It’s akin to winning the Nobel Travel prize; the owners and employees of La Residence should be revered!) Two factors, I believe, are pivotal to South Africa’s competitive advantage in these awards: our rich endowment of natural and cultural diversity (necessary but not sufficient for success), and its relative affordability, owing, perhaps, to the high share of wages in the total cost bundle of this labour-intensive industry. And because wages are relatively low in South Africa (and wages are unregulated in the tourism industry), hotels and resorts can splash the luxury without straining clients’ budgets (which also makes the tourism industry one of the leading employers in South Africa, notably employing mostly unskilled workers). More importantly, it is nearly impossible to replace friendly personnel with computers or other machinery. This has an important lesson for countries at lower levels of development: focus on those export industries where labour is irreplaceable. Tourism is one of those.

I have yet to meet a visitor to South Africa who have not enjoyed their visit. If you believe these are just selection effects in my sample, read here and here and here for the opinions of established travel bloggers. So if you’re planning your next holiday and are unsure of where to go, South Africa is calling.