FOR the first time ever the Presidency has recognised the importance of tourism to South Africa.

That's the view of Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the minister of tourism.

Van Schalkwyk is something of a political survivor, having come out on top after first merging the New National Party with the Democratic Party in 2000, forming the DA, and then splitting away less than two years later to form an alliance with the ANC - later disbanding the NNP and becoming an ANC member.

One might think that the ANC's attraction to Van Schalkwyk was because he was supposed to bring a large group of white voters to the ANC. But Van Schalkwyk says he has proved himself by working hard. He spent the past five years as minister of environmental affairs and tourism, where he earned respect for his work on climate change. And now he has been tasked with making sure that the Fifa 2010 World Cup is a tourism success.

He clearly sees his new post as promotion, and says "the fact that President Jacob Zuma has decided that it must now be a stand-alone portfolio is a very important step forward".

"It's a recognition of the fact that it is the fastest-growing sector of our economy.

"It already contributes 8,5percent to our GDP, and if we do things right we can push that up to double digits within the next few years. Obviously all of that translates into jobs," he says.

Right now Van Schalkwyk's number one priority is to get the tourism industry through the recession.

"By 2010 we want 10 million international arrivals," he said, adding that the standard of service in the industry needed to improve for that to happen.

Van Schalkwyk describes tourism training as "weak". He knows he will be unpopular in saying that the tourism Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta) "has not been functioning optimally. It is clear to me that we need an improvement".

With tourism having been out of reach for the majority of South Africans, Van Schalkwyk said he planned to "make some interventions".

He says he does not want to pre-empt discussions within the tourism industry, but the old Aventura resorts were a good idea.

Aventura resorts offered cheap holidays for the white working class under apartheid, but were privatised after Thabo Mbeki became president. Mbeki said at the time that "the government could not run holiday resorts," but Van Schalkwyk says the model is worth a second look.

"The Afrikaans cultural organisations in the past had resorts where people who worked on the railways could go, and that gave people who could not normally get that kind of experience opportunities. We don't have that now. So that is something that I think deserves our very serious attention," he says.

In the meantime, people would have to make do with "affordable tourism packages" that they can buy at Shoprite. "It is one thing to tell people to become tourists but if you don't have affordable packages it is limited," says Van Schalkwyk.

He supports the expansion of tourism opportunities in townships beyond the few guest houses and restaurants, and beyond the notorious guarded buses that drive quickly in and out filled mainly with white tourists gawking at the shacks.

"The will is there in the townships to have guest houses and restaurants but people need support in terms of know-how, where to advertise, and how to manage an establishment," he said.

The Department of Tourism has created partnerships with large hotel groups that are able to buy useful items like guest house furniture in bulk at reduced rates, and then sell them at cheaper prices to township guest houses.

But right now, Van Schalkwyk's focus is on keeping stadiums and guest houses filled for the five years after the World Cup.

"The hospitality industry is investing almost R20billion. It is a lot of money. We must keep these hotels full," he says.

By early next year the government will announce which international sporting events we are going to bid for as a country for the next five years.

Van Schalkwyk plans to work closely with sporting associations and has even mooted the idea of the government setting up a central bidding fund to assist sports organisations and others to bid for international events.

Five years after leaving the New National Party for the ANC, Van Schalkwyk is an active member of the ANC's Gaby Shapiro branch in Rondebosch, Cape Town.

During Parliament's last term, it counted five cabinet ministers and ex-water affairs and education minister Kader Asmal among its members.

"I feel comfortable and at home in the ANC," Van Schalkwyk says.