Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Thu April 16 2015

A Restless Soul: One on One with Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s Minister of Tourism

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | April 16, 2015

A Restless Soul: One on One with Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s Minister of Tourism

Photo courtesy South African Tourism

South Africa’s new minister of tourism, Derek Hanekom, has a colorful history.

He was born and educated in Cape Town, fulfilled his term of compulsory conscription into the armed forces and then went abroad, working in various jobs on farms, in factories, and on construction sites. In his early 20s he returned to South Africa and worked in farming for six years until an event changed the course of his life.

While a participant in a peaceful candlelight demonstration in 1976 in Johannesburg, Hanekom was arrested. The incident sparked his commitment to anti-apartheid political causes. He and his wife joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1980 and worked in the political underground while he continued to work as a farmer.

After giving information to the ANC about the Apartheid government’s plans to overthrow the government of Mozambique, Hanekom and his wife were arrested in 1983 and charged with High Treason. The charge was reduced, but he served a three-year prison term. When he was released he worked with trade unions in Johannesburg until his wife’s release from prison and exile to Zimbabwe in 1987.

The couple spent the next three years in Zimbabwe where Hanekom worked as the coordinator of the Popular History Trust in Harare. When the outlawing of the ANC was lifted in 1990, he returned to South Africa and worked at the headquarters of the ANC, helping to formulate policies on land use and agriculture during the period leading to South Africa’s first open elections in 1994.

When Nelson Mandela was elected president, he appointed Hanekom minister of agriculture and land affairs, where Hanekom worked to undo some of the injustices of the apartheid government.

After Mandela’s term of office, Hanekom served as a member of Parliament 1999-2004, was appointed minister of science and technology in 2004 and again during the 2012-2014 period.

TravelPulse interviewed Hanekom during his recent visit to New York.

TravelPulse: What are your immediate plans and strategies?

Derek Hanekom: Firstly, to build on the program that exists. But we constantly seek new and better ways of addressing some of the challenges. So what are the challenges? If you put it in a nutshell, the first is the continuous effort to market South Africa better. And the second is to do constant improvements to the destination you’re trying to market.

That would include skills development, enhancing the human capacity, better tour guides, better operators in many different ways. And then enhancements of the actual destinations within the bigger destination of South Africa, whether it’s Robben Island or museums, and monuments, and world heritage sites. These things are happening simultaneously. We want that experience in South Africa to be a truly memorable experience and a tourist-friendly experience.

We have a budget over next three years of approximately $50 million, and we believe that that budget will grow. But one of the things we’re doing with that budget is to allow businesses in South Africa to retro-fit their establishments to make them more energy efficient, more resource efficient and ultimately to make them more disability friendly.

TP: You mentioned a $50 million budget. Are you referring to the overall budget?

DH: No, the bulk of it goes to marketing, which is not a cheap thing to do. But there is a budget for other things that we do in tourism. The department of tourism is mandated to perform some regulatory functions, but at the same time some skills development programs are located in the department of tourism.

Tour guides are regulated by the national department of tourism and these public works programs are also the responsibility of the department of tourism. So the remainder of the budget after we’ve given the marketing department their money, goes to these programs. The overall budget in dollar terms is around 1.6 billion rand [about $130 million], of which approximately 1.1 billion [approximately $90 million] goes to marketing.

This is a departmental budget that gets allocated to different things. One would be community-based projects, another would be tourism incentive programs, another part would go to chef’s training and various training programs. We have a project to improve signage at some of the key destinations. There is a whole range of things that we do to try to improve the destination.

By the way, the marketing side doesn’t only do marketing. What is very important as well is quality assurance in South Africa. We have a grading council that gives us the five-star, four-star, three-star grading. They’ve been given that responsibility, to manage the grading council on behalf of government.

The tourism department has only been a stand-alone department for five years. Previous to that it was the Department of Environment and Tourism.

TP: In the time that the tourism ministry has been a stand-alone department, has it been showing good results that the government can see are benefitting the whole country?

DH: Yes, it has. But I happen to be a restless soul, as we all are here, and we all want even better results. The truth of the matter is that the last two decades, even before tourism became a stand-alone department, we’ve had steady and quite impressive growth in tourism.

We’ve got that for a number of reasons. And I think the efforts of SA Tourism have played no small part in that. But a number of other things have contributed as well. Right now, clearly, the exchange rate is very favorable as well, so there is a number of favorable factors. But it’s a matter of post-1994, post-democratization, the discovery of South Africa and the word of mouth messaging that comes about South Africa, among other things. It’s just grown.

The 2010 World Cup had an important role to play, but it was on a growth trajectory anyway. What happened was it took a little leap upwards, it flattened again, but then it continued growing but from a higher level.

With the World Cup it was not only the fact that we got a lot of exposure from it, Brazilians coming to South Africa who would not [have] otherwise come to South Africa, Mexicans, Argentineans, and people from many other parts of the world who didn’t necessarily have South Africa as the number one holiday destination, they came for the soccer.

But they had a great experience, and they were communicating to people all over the world about the great experience they were having and they were seeing visuals about South Africa. In addition to that it was the country’s ability to host a very big mega event. That increased confidence and credibility. If South Africa can do that…

And along with it came quite a number of infrastructural developments. Our airports are really world class airports. We invested quite a lot in infrastructure, including the improvement of highways and public transport systems just prior to the World Cup, and they stand us in good stead. I think on that road of discovery of South Africa, it takes something like Ebola, which is completely out of our control to result in declining numbers. That could happen to any country.

TP: Did Ebola affect South Africa?

DH: Yes, of course it did. We just don’t know to what extent. It will always be difficult to determine precisely to what extent it has contributed to slower growth in certain countries and even declines in 2014. But that will always happen.

There were huge declines during the H1N1 Asian flu period. You’ll always have that when you have some kind of dramatic incident. Right now Kenya is unfortunately very affected by recent terrorist attacks. But tomorrow it could be another country. So these things do impact on tourism. Ebola was very far away from us, but the fact of the matter is in terms of perception the fears are there and the fears to translate into cautiousness as to whether this is a good time to be going to Africa. Notwithstanding Ebola, we have seen continuous growth. But the feedback we get is that Ebola has been a factor. So you can readily assume that it would have been greater without Ebola.

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