FX Excursions

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Dynamic Durban

Sep 1, 2004
2004 / September 2004

International trade qualifies as a spectator sport in Durban, South Africa. Most days you can join people congregated on the northern pier of the narrow harbor entrance to gaze out at the giant container ships moored offshore like an archipelago of steel islands. Helicopters fly out to them, winching harbor pilots aboard to oversee the tricky approach into port.

One by one, up to 4,000 vessels each year inch through the mile-long entrance channel — often with herds of frolicking dolphins leading the way. For most of the people on the pier, the full significance of the spectacle probably does not register — what they are watching is South Africa’s economy in action. Through this port, the busiest in Africa, 1.2 million tons of cargo flows each fortnight, 83,000 containers every month, $8 billion in imports and exports annually.

Durban was born for trade. The foundations were laid in 1823, when a group of British ivory traders was granted permission by Shaka, king of the Zulus, to establish a harbor in a mangrove lagoon on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Initially their ramshackle settlement was called Port Natal, but after more than a decade of indifference from the colonial authorities, they sought attention through flattery: changing the name to honor the British governor of Cape Colony, Sir Benjamin D’Urban.

The colonial moniker probably will not last much longer. There are plans to revert to the original Zulu name. Within the next few years, this dynamic city of 3.7 million people is likely to be renamed eThekwini, meaning either “the place where earth and ocean meet,” “lagoon” or “one testicle,” depending on interpretation. Whatever the true translation, eThekwini has already been adopted as the official name for the municipality.

Durban’s rebranding is not the only major change in the pipeline. The Point (www.durbanpoint.co.za), a derelict district between the high-rise waterfront hotels of the “Golden Mile” and the harbor, is currently undergoing a dramatic multimillion-dollar transformation. Centering on the newly opened uShaka Marine World, Africa’s biggest aquarium, the 135-acre development will combine upmarket commercial, office, retail and residential elements around a network of canals. It is scheduled for completion by 2010.

Even more significant is the impending relocation of the city’s international airport from its present site, six miles south of downtown, to La Mercy, 18 miles north. The new King Shaka International Airport, as it will be known, will be the centerpiece of Dube Tradeport, an integrated development incorporating the harbors of Durban and Richards Bay. When the airport begins operations in 2009, it will be Africa’s only 24-hour freight and passenger facility.

The airport will be operational in time for the fifa Soccer World Cup, the world’s largest sporting event after the Olympics, which will be hosted by South Africa in 2010. Durban is set to be one of the main venues, and much of the city’s planning strategy is being formulated to maximize dividends from the event (nationally, the World Cup is expected to generate revenue of $2.7 billion). Many new tourism ventures are under way, and the city’s International Convention Center (www.icc.co.za), which is regarded as the continent’s best, is embarking on an expansion program that will double its capacity.

The Convention Center has already hosted high-profile world conferences on aids/hiv and racism. Both are topics close to the city’s heart. aids/hiv has ravaged the workforce, representing a tragedy in both human and economic terms, while the impact of racism has been just as destructive. Even today, the shadow of apartheid remains perceivable. In Durban, the fissures not only divide black from white, but also affect the sizable Indian community.

More than 800,000 Indians live in Durban — the largest population in any city outside the Indian subcontinent. They are mostly the descendents of laborers imported by the British authorities in the 19th century to work on the sugar plantations (the most famous immigrant was a young lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, who spent 21 years in Durban fighting for improved social conditions).

Like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela hoped to break down the barriers between the races. In modern Durban’s blend of Zulu, European and Indian cultures, there is genuine optimism that Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow nation” is in the process of being realized.

Since majority rule was gained in 1994, the ethnic balance has been further complicated by thousands of migrants from throughout the African continent. These newcomers often end up in the informal shanty settlements that can be seen beside the city’s freeways. On the back of this continuing influx, Durban is reputed to be the fastest growing city in the Southern Hemisphere — a situation that creates as many opportunities as problems.

Among the organizations charged with making the most of the opportunities are the Kwazulu-Natal Department of Economic Develop-ment and Tourism (www.kzn-deat.gov.za) and the Durban Investment Promotion Agency (www.dipa.co.za), both of which aim to encourage partnerships between the public and private sectors in industry and tourism.

Tourism in particular is seen as a major source of potential revenue. With 345 days of sunshine each year, Durban has long been the premier domestic holiday destination for South Africans, especially from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Its delights were celebrated in South Africa’s biggest hit record of the 1970s, Jeremy Taylor’s “Ag Pleez Deddy” [Oh Please, Daddy]: “Ag pleez deddy won’t you take us off to Durban / It’s only eight hours in the Chevrolet / There’s spans of sea and sand and sun / And fish in the aquarium / That’s a lekker [lovely] place for a holiday.”

In the 1990s, things changed. Durban was badly affected by the crime wave that swept through all of South Africa’s cities, and the famous Golden Mile, the row of hotels lining the city’s shoreline, became known as “Mugger’s Mile.” Tourists fled in droves, switching to the resort towns of Umhlanga Rocks and Ballito to the north, and Amanzimtoti and Scottburgh to the south. Durban’s luster as a holiday destination appeared to be terminally tarnished.

Recently, there has been a resurgence, largely due to the development of the $225 million Suncoast Casino, an art deco entertainment complex that, along with the International Convention Center and uShaka Marine World, forms an apex of what is now being dubbed the “Golden Triangle.” As a result of these ambitious developments, property values the length of Durban’s seafront have doubled within a year and look set to continue to rise as new proposals are announced. The latest scheme is to convert the beachside Addington Hospital into a five-star hotel in time for the World Cup.

From the northern pier, turn your back for a moment on the steady procession of ships in and out of port and look instead at the full sweep of Durban’s waterfront. There, beneath the cranes and amid the pounding cacophony of jackhammers, a new city is steadily emerging out of the old one. Spectate if you like, but economic development on this scale offers a more exciting (and lucrative) option: participation.

Checking in

Monique Labat, general manager in charge of investor support and marketing for the Durban Investment Promotion Agency, discusses business, investment and leisure opportunities in the South African port city

Global Traveler: In a nutshell, what are the aims of the Durban Investment Promotion Agency?
Monique Labat: Durban Investment Promotion Agency is an independently managed, local government/private sector partnership, set up to promote Durban as a modern, “go-ahead” business center that will attract new investments and retain existing investments in the locality. We provide first-level advice to investors on issues impacting business decisions.

Our many services include introducing investors to commercial and industrial opportunities in Durban; providing business information and a 24-hour advisory service; and offering a network of support services — all at no cost. We’re proud to have an efficient and innovative investor service offering assistance on relevant economic and development trends in the city; feedback on economic development trends; assistance with meeting key decision-makers in the business and public sectors; help with site evaluation and selection; advice on investment proposals; local market research; and an interactive information database.

GT: What opportunities does Durban offer American investors?
ML: There are few locations that can truly be described as treasure chests for investors, but Durban certainly can. Durban makes investing in South Africa a truly rewarding experience. For a start, its strategic location provides easy access to growing markets in southern Africa, as well as the Persian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Rim and the east coast of Africa. Durban has a world-class container port; the cost of business and living is relatively low; and the workforce is highly skilled.

GT: What are the main investment opportunities?
ML: Investment opportunities exist in the commercial, industrial, manufacturing, retail, leisure, tourism, sport, infrastructure and residential sectors. Durban has recently completed the Gateway Theatre of Shopping and the Millennium Tower situated on top of the Bluff at the entrance to the harbor. Ongoing projects include the uShaka Island Marine Theme Park, valued at $105 million, which will catalyze further developments. Also, Southgate Industrial Park, Riverhorse Valley Business Estate, Effingham/Avoca Project, Tsogo Sun Casino, Umbogintwini Operational Services Project and the $3.4 million Wilson’s Wharf waterfront project, which will overlook a new 75-boat marina.

GT: Are there any other major developments in the pipeline?
ML: Yes. A further exciting development for the city of Durban is the invitation by the prime minister of Canada to our mayor, Councilor Obed Mlaba, to join Canada’s Sustainable Cities Initiative. The project will inject into Durban some of the funds needed for the city to realize its long-term economic development plans.

Durban was chosen as the preferred city on the African continent because of our focused long-term plans, including those for the Southern Industrial Basin, the Point and general business development. The initiative is project-driven and the rewards will be environmental benefits, poverty reduction and social improvement. In turn, Durban and its citizens will experience greater economic development and improved quality of life.

GT: For a visiting business traveler, what does Durban have to offer as a destination?
ML: We have a great seaside location with year-round good weather. Also, our lifestyle and recreational opportunities rank among the best in the world.


The Royal Hotel
Ever since it opened, the Royal has been Durban’s venue of choice for visiting businesspeople: Countless deals have been sealed in its sophisticated bars and restaurants. This lavish hotel, which overlooks the harbor, was founded in the 1840s by a sea captain. It was initially known as the Commercial Hotel, then the Masonic, before being officially granted its present name by Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria. He is just one of a legion of influential figures to have stayed here — others include Mark Twain, H.G. Wells and Nelson Mandela. Of the hotel’s six restaurants, The Top of the Royal provides — as its name suggests — spectacular views, while the Ulundi serves the best curries in Africa. The hotel has 251 rooms, refurbished in 2003, 25 of which are suites. Nightly rates from $220 for a standard room, from $370 for an executive suite with butler service.
The Royal Hotel
267 Smith St., P.O. Box 1041
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 31 333 6000, fax 27 31 333 6002

The Balmoral
Named after the British royal family’s Scottish retreat, this stately hotel — which is architecturally reminiscent of Buckingham Palace — lives up to its reputation as the queen of the Golden Mile. The lobby and rooms have the ambience of a Scottish castle, yet the hotel’s famous terrace — the best place in Durban for an evening cocktail — is fringed by palm trees and overlooks the Indian Ocean. There are 95 rooms, 57 with sea views, 38 facing the courtyard. Nightly rates from $112 for a courtyard room, from $127 for a sea-view room.
The Balmoral
125 Marine Parade
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 31 368 5940, fax 27 31 368 5955

The Westville Hotel
Situated in the tranquil suburb of Westville, on a cool ridge overlooking the sweltering coastal strip, The Westville Hotel is an elegant colonial-style property that has provided a retreat from the heat and bustle of downtown Durban since the 19th century. Thanks to modern freeways, the central business district is just a 10-minute drive away. The hotel, which is owned by the same company as The Royal, was refurbished last year and offers 42 spacious rooms. Nightly rates from $92.
The Westville Hotel
P.O. Box 145
Westville 3630, South Africa
tel 27 31 266 6326, fax 27 31 266 8559

The Albany Hotel
he Albany is a budget option situated directly opposite City Hall (which, bizarrely, is an exact replica of the City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland). The rooms have something of a 1970s feel about them, but they are clean, the hotel is security-conscious, and the location puts you right in the heart of the city. There are 72 rooms, each with satellite television and excellent city views. Nightly rates from $41.
The Albany Hotel
225 Smith St., P.O. Box 1595
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 31 304 4381, fax 27 31 307 1411


South Africans love food. Admittedly, they tend to opt for quantity over quality, but that is steadily changing thanks to the demanding tastes of foreign visitors. Durban has the full range of excellent restaurants that you would expect of any international city.

No visit to South Africa would be complete without experiencing a braai (barbecue), which will often include a 2-foot-long local sausage known as boerewors. Another local delicacy is biltong — delicious dried meat similar to jerky (biltong is usually made from beef, but ostrich, buffalo and antelope varieties are available).

Being a coastal city, Durban offers plenty of great seafood, including fresh Mozambique prawns, probably the best in the world. The Indian influence is strongly felt in the city’s cuisine, giving rise to a unique Durban specialty, “bunny chow”: a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with beans or curry. Once the food of downtrodden Indian laborers, bunny chow has become a proud local delicacy.

Allen Gardiner Harbour Cruise Restaurant
If your time in the city is limited, why not combine good food and sightseeing? The MV Allen Gardiner, a restored WWII South African air force rescue boat, offers 31⁄2-hour cruises of Durban Harbor with lunch (noon to 3:30 p.m.) or a candlelit dinner (7 to 10:30 p.m.) served from an a la carte menu featuring local seafood. The cruise costs $9.50; main courses from $7.20.
Allen Gardiner Harbour
Cruise Restaurant
Wilson’s Wharf
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 89 456 4000

Roma Revolving Restaurant
Another scenic option is this popular Italian restaurant on the 32nd floor of one of the city’s skyscrapers. The atmosphere is determinedly romantic, the food is excellent, and the view is spectacular (and constantly changing). Main courses from $8 to $15.
Roma Revolving Restaurant
John Ross House
Victoria Embankment
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 31 337 6707, fax 27 31 337 2991

Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshments
For bunny chow, Patel’s is the best place in town — the restaurant claims to have invented Durban’s signature dish. Despite the name above the door, the menu isn’t exclusively vegetarian, and bunny chow is offered in a full range of meaty varieties. Main courses average $10.
Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshments
Rama House
Grey Street
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 31 306 1774

Joe Kool’s
Joe Kool’s, a trendy bar and grill on the seafront, owes its popularity to a slogan that would give the average Madison Avenue executive a seizure — “Undeniably the World’s Worst Restaurant.” Scan the menu, and under “specials” you’re invited to “ask what Joe’s dog caught today.” In reality, the food’s pretty decent, making Joe’s the ideal place to grab an informal lunch for less than 10 bucks.
Joe Kool’s
137 Lower Marine Parade
North Beach
Durban, South Africa
tel 27 31 332 9697


If shopping malls are your thing, two of the continent’s biggest are located close to Durban: The Pavilion (www.thepav.co.za) in Westville and the enormous Gateway Theatre of Shopping (www.gatewayworld.co.za) in Umhlanga. These swanky complexes are more American than African, but within their curio shops and boutiques you’ll be able to find a good choice of upmarket African art and textiles.

Be sure to visit the informal market stalls along the waterfront, where you can buy handicrafts from the people who made them. You’ll find whole herds of carved wooden animals in all sizes, as well as colorful Zulu beadwork (which is inventively incorporated into anything from watch straps to placemats) and intricately woven baskets.

On weekends, flea markets spring up in various locations around the city and are great places to unearth unusual antiques or collectibles. The largest, the South Plaza Flea Market, takes place at the Durban Exhibition Center on Aliwal Street every Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Just opened (April 2004) and already Durban’s premier attraction, uShaka Marine World (www.ushaka marineworld.co.za) is an absolute must. Part theme park, part aquarium, part shopping mall, part water park, there’s something for everyone — even frazzled business travelers. Entry to the shopping zone and to uShaka Beach is free; admission to the aquarium (which is designed to resemble a shipwrecked 1920s steamer) costs $13.

Sticking with the fishy theme, the headquarters of the Natal Sharks Board (tel 27 81 403 9206, www.shark.co.za) at Umhlanga Rocks, 12 miles north of downtown Durban, is worth a visit. Tourists can arrange to join the Sharks Board boat, which departs Durban harbor at 6 each morning to remove dead sharks from the nets that protect the city’s beaches. The boat trip takes two hours and costs $25. Prebooking is essential.

Durban is the ideal base for exploring some of South Africa’s top attractions. Three hours inland are the magnificently rugged Drakensberg Mountains — the “Roof of Africa.” It’s a great place for hiking. North of the Berg (as the Drakensbergs are known locally) lie numerous interesting battlefields from Britain’s wars against the Zulus and the Boers. One of the most famous is Rorke’s Drift, which features in the famous movie Zulu.

Three hours north of Durban, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve is a great safari destination; with luck, you’ll see rhinos (it’s the best place in the world to see them), lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes and buffalo.

For more information about these and other attractions in Kwazulu-Natal, visit www.kzn. org.za (the Web site also includes information for potential investors).

Just the Facts

Location: Durban is a port city on the Indian Ocean, 365 miles from Johannesburg and 1,089 miles from Cape Town. The inhabitants are of African (mainly Zulu), Indian and European descent

Population: 3.7 million, growing at 2 percent per annum

Climate: Subtropical. Even in the height of winter (May to August), the temperature rarely falls below 50°F. In summer (November to March), the wettest time of year, temperatures average around 80°F. Humidity is high year-round

Time Zone: GMT+2

Phone Code: 27 31

Currency: South African Rand

Electricity: 220/230V AC50Hz

Official Languages: South Africa has 11 official languages. The most commonly spoken in Durban are English, Afrikaans and Zulu

Key Industries: Retail, tourism, import and export, transport (including airport relocation), industrial (chemicals, plastics, textiles, electronics and medical supplies), agriculture (sugar cane)

Info to Go

South African Airways (tel 866 722 2476, www.flysaa.com) flies from New York; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Atlanta to Durban via Cape Town or Johannesburg. Feeder services from cities throughout the United States are provided by SAA’s American ally, Delta Airlines.

Several major car rental companies, including Avis and Budget, serve Durban International Airport (DUR). South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road. Due to the generally poor standard of driving, the country has one of the worst accident rates in the world. Carjacking is also a problem; motorists should keep all doors locked and windows rolled up; be especially careful when driving after dark.

Official Durban/eThekwini Web site: www.durban.gov.za


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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