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Prof Ernie Heath - Stellenbosch University

Matie Voices

Prof Ernie Heath

Alumnus of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences


“Staying in a vibrant student hostel, such as Huis Visser, the biggest challenge was to balance the academic, social and sport aspects of student life – not easy!”

Retirement was meant to offer Prof Ernie Heath a well-earned break after a career spanning more than 40 years promoting tourism and tourism studies in South Africa, but, he says, he is still on the “roller coaster”.

“Without initially intending it, after my ‘retirement’ I am still continuing to lecture, to consult and, importantly, to support small towns to realise their tourism potential.”

Ernie’s ground-breaking academic, marketing and policymaking work, which has included championing the country’s first internationally recognised BCom and BCom Hons tourism management programmes, recently led to him becoming one of the first recipients of a lifetime achievement award from Tourism Educators South Africa.
“I owe tourism so much for enriching my life. I truly felt humbled to receive this latest award, which has inspired me to keep going and to continue to strive to add value in this great industry that can do so much to enhance the quality of life of people, particularly in rural and underdeveloped areas.”

The prize crowned a career already garlanded with awards for promoting research, education and training in tourism globally, for his contribution to the development of tourism with the participation of local communities and for innovation in teaching.

An emeritus professor at the University or Pretoria (UP), which he joined in 1996 and where he headed the Department of Tourism Management, Ernie fell into academia by chance.

“After completing my BCom Hons in business management at Stellenbosch, I was focused on working for an international company but was approached to stand in as lecturer at the University of the Western Cape while one of the senior professors was on sabbatical. This turned out to be a life-changing experience, as I truly enjoyed the vibrant engagement and interaction with the students.

“1977 was turbulent, but exciting times.”

After stints at the University of Fort Hare and the former University of Port Elizabeth, as well as a period in the public sector which culminated in his appointment as deputy executive director at South African Tourism, he accepted the position of chair of tourism management at UP.

Ernie welcomed the opportunity to develop a fully-fledged tourism department at the university and contribute to the study of the field as an academic discipline. “I also wanted to spend more time with my wife, Elize, and our three young sons, Johan, Eric and Erwil,” he says.

The co-author of 15 books, including a key volume on destination marketing which is studied across the world, much of Ernie’s work has had an intensely practical focus. He helped to shape government policy on tourism after the introduction of democracy and forged promotional plans that, at one point, contributed to a 50% rise in visitors to the country.

“At the local level I also enjoyed facilitating the development of more than 40 strategic and marketing plans for towns, cities and provinces in South and Southern Africa.”

“The country still has vast untapped potential, particularly in rural South Africa. Many local and international tourist segments are increasingly seeking authentic, interactive, engaging, exciting, exhilarating and educational experiences – all of which can be offered in abundance in our small towns and their surrounding agricultural areas. A future challenge will be to cascade some of the financial and human resources in the tourism sphere from the national and provincial levels to the local level.”

It is a tourism ethos that has informed Ernie’s own holiday preferences.

“I enjoy visiting new, ‘undiscovered’ local and international destinations that are authentic and where you can immerse yourself in local experiences. Enjoying local cuisine, local music, local activities, local stories and engaging with locals, particularly the local ‘characters’, is very special.”

Ernie also enjoys cycling, “particularly in unspoilt rural areas”, and is looking forward to completing his 22nd Cape Town Cycle Tour with his sons next year, although, he admits, “it is not becoming easier”.

He looks back with fondness on his student days at Stellenbosch. “Staying in a vibrant student hostel, such as Huis Visser, the biggest challenge was to balance the academic, social and sport aspects of student life – not easy!”

He also emphasises the importance of the university’s larger pastoral mission as an institution that “is committed to not only delivering successful graduates, but also passionate, value-driven and responsible citizens”.

- By Mark Paterson -