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Waiting for the tourists to return in South Africa

Lebo Malepa, owner of Lebo's Soweto Backpackers, has seen a plunge in business this year, and wonders whether another global recession is about to check in.

August 21, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Lebo Malepa, 35, started his tourist business in Soweto in 2003 and saw it do well. But the number of international visitors has plunged and he says he may have to lay off employees.
Lebo Malepa, 35, started his tourist business in Soweto in 2003 and saw it… (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — When Lebo Malepa decided to rent out his bedroom and another room in 2003, his economist father doubted his son's ambitious vision for tourism in unlikely Soweto township.

"Soweto is a township full of energy and full of trendsetters," Malepa said. "When I started my business, I was convinced I was going to make it happen."

Malepa's enthusiasm, hard work and ability to spot a market niche helped Lebo's Soweto Backpackers expand dramatically. He now has 57 bicycles and two tuk-tuks (three-wheelers) for township tours, 24 beds and 19 employees.

During last year's soccer World Cup in South Africa, business was so good that he had to put people up in campers on an adjacent piece of land. Tour buses were regularly pulling up out front, and the bicycle tours attracted about 60 tourists a day.

Lately, the buses have stopped coming. On a typical day recently, he hosted eight bicycle tourists.

"Because my main business is international tourists, we are hurting a lot," he said. "Last August we would have had 50 tourist buses come to our home. This August we haven't had one."

The dramatic decline in business is a contraction reflected across South Africa's tourist industry, as well as its manufacturing sector.

Beneath Malepa's optimistic exterior, there's a creeping doubt. What if the global recession bites again? What if the tourists have not come by year's end?

Malepa called a meeting Monday with his staff and laid his fears on the table. If business didn't pick up, he explained, he would have to cut three to five jobs.

Still, he says he's sure he'll weather the storm.

"I've got the energy to make things happen," he said, "even in the darkest hour."

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