An upsurge in xenophobic violence in South Africa’s biggest city could cause serious damage to efforts to attract visitors from across the continent, tourism chiefs warned on Tuesday.

Moeketsi Mosola, chief executive of SA Tourism, said the attacks had given “a very negative reputation to brand South Africa” and undermined efforts “to market our country as a must visit holiday, trade and investment destination”.

“SA Tourism would like to re-assure all our potential foreign visitors that it is safe to visit South Africa and that the incidents of attacks are contained in very small areas of our beautiful country,” Mosola added in a statement.

Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk also expressed fears the violence could damage efforts to attract tourists to South Africa which is expecting up to half a million foreign visitors when it hosts the 2010 football World Cup.

“We are quite concerned about the effects of the attacks on tourism. They have the potential to impact negatively on the African market,” van Schalkwyk told reporters.

The violence has been centred around Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city which is due to stage the football World Cup final in 2010.

Tourism is now one of the mainstays of the South African economy with more than nine million foreigners visiting the country last year.