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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's tourism industry is likely to take a hit following a wave of xenophobic attacks this month, a setback for the country which has worked hard to clean up its image as a hub for violent crime.
Seven people have been killed in the attacks, which mostly targeted African immigrants. Police and soldiers have brought the unrest under control but the damage may already have been done for the tourism sector, which supports one in 12 jobs.
Unemployment -- officially running at 25 percent, but which economists say is much higher -- is one factor blamed for the attacks on foreigners.
The successful hosting of the 2010 World Cup helped improve South Africa's reputation for violence but graphic images of armed gangs attacking immigrants and looting foreign-owned shops have revived fears that may put off potential visitors.
"(The attacks) are damaging to the brand that we are marketing, damaging to the reputation of the country," said Thulani Nzima, CEO of South African Tourism.
"We've always marketed the country on the basis of the warmth of its people, the welcoming nature of the people, so when things like this happen, it depletes that currency that we've punted out there. So of course we're very worried."
Tourism has emerged as South Africa's fastest-growing sector and is now the third largest contributor to GDP, helped in part by a weaker rand currency which has made it a relatively cheap destination for international visitors. The government hopes it will generate nearly 500 billion rand a year by the end of the decade and create 225,000 new jobs.
South Africa's government says tourists should feel safe, noting that the violence only affected a small portion of the country, but many remain unconvinced.
"I feel that my safety is not guaranteed in Durban, so I have made up my mind not to attend," said Nigerian Adeyinka Adefunmiloye, who was due to attend a conference to represent his "African Tourist" journal.
"A lot of people would have taken the same decision because nobody wants to go to a country where he or she is not safe."
Operators in tourism hub Cape Town are seeing business dip even though the coastal city has escaped the unrest.
Cape Town's beaches, rolling vineyards and attractions like Table Mountain and Robben Island, where anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela spent nearly two decades in jail, draw visitors from all over the world.
But Australia, Botswana, China and the UK have issued travel warnings to their citizens following the anti-immigrant attacks and Nigeria recalled its top diplomat in protest at the weekend.
"We have received a few reports from our members of cancellations being received due to fears of xenophobic violence," Cape Town Tourism chief executive Enver Duminy told Reuters, without giving numbers.
The tourism industry has grown steadily since the 2010 World Cup, directly and indirectly generating $39 billion, or 9.7 percent of South Africa's GDP in 2013, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Africans account for more than 60 percent of visitors, with nearly 700,000 coming on holiday in December last year, Statistics South Africa data shows.
That compared with about 150,000 visitors from Europe, 32,000 from North America and 16,000 from Asia.
The violence could also hurt South Africa's drive to increase trading relations with the rest of Africa, as it tries to rebuild its economy after a 2009 recession which also hit the country's traditional markets in Europe.
"South Africa will be hurt by the developments of (recent) weeks and the consequences may flow for months, even after the last grave has been filled," said analyst Gary van Staden of NKC Independent Economists.
"The xenophobic attacks carry grave and dire consequences across several sectors: our businesses operating in Africa, our tourism, our reputation, our investment levels, our ability to borrow money and the safety of our people in other countries."
Reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa; Editing by Joe Brock and Catherine Evans