First US tourist finds her way to Lost City
● US traveller Stuff Cleague wanted to travel to Africa from the first time she saw the 2014 movie Blended.
The romcom, about two people who loathe each other but end up on safari together, may have been a box-office bomb for stars Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, but for Cleague it ignited a desire to visit the principal shooting location — the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City in North West.
When she finally arrived last week, she was the first direct international visitor the resort had seen in over a year.
Cleague had begun planning the trip before Covid struck and said rescheduling was not an option for her. She knew infection rates in SA were high, but she was happy that it was safe to travel.
“After going through a year of everybody knowing to wear a mask, washing their hands and keeping social distance, I was like ‘we have it down now’,” she said.
Captivated by the film’s wild stars — cheetahs, elephants and buck — Cleague, who supervises a team of plasma workers at a hospital in Buffalo, New York, wondered if the location was real. A Google search confirmed it was, and she called her travel agent. “I had to see the place,” she said.
With most airlines having suspended flights to SA, she had to take a roundabout trip, flying via Atlanta and Amsterdam.
Cleague has spent her time lying by the pool, eating in the hotel’s restaurants and taking a hot-air balloon ride, spotting wildebeest and zebras from the air.
“I’m scared to walk up several flights of stairs but I felt like I was floating on a cloud, sitting with the angels, watching the sunrise,” she said.
Next she planned to head into nearby Pilanesberg Game Reserve in the hope of spotting the Big Five.
On her 52nd birthday on Thursday, Cleague received a cake featuring the US flag and gifts to celebrate her special day. Her red-carpet treatment is “nothing out of the ordinary”, said Sun City GM for hospitality Julius Ramotse. “This is what we do at The Palace.”
Cleague’s visit is a rarity as international travellers stay away. Jeremy Clayton, Fedhasa Western Cape chair and director of the President Hotel in Sea Point, said there is almost zero international tourism, except for some people who are able to work remotely.
However, “that trend is on the up and very promising”, he said.
Tony Romer-Lee, managing partner of Valor Hospitality, which manages properties such as the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein and Fancourt golf resort in George, said there is no international business.
Valor’s hotels have benefited from domestic travel, but many large hotels, such as the Rosebank Hyatt and Cape Grace, are shut with no idea when they will reopen, he said.
“There is slow recovery and booking activity from the US for holidays from the middle to the end of the year,” said Romer-Lee
The US is leading the way largely as a result of its vaccine rollout, he said.
In 2019, SA welcomed 10.2-million international travellers, who spent more than R81bn, according to SA Tourism. Foreign visitor numbers fell dramatically in 2020 as a result of closed borders and travel bans.
Following the resumption of international travel in August last year, just over 12,000 travellers have arrived from the UK, 7,759 from Germany and 5,943 from the US.
“Last year was a complete write-off,” said SA Tourism spokesperson Altaaf Kazi.