A dramatic difference is apparent the moment I land in South Africa’s third-largest city. Strolling through Durban’s brand new King Shaka International airport, I find a spiffy steel-and-glass facility has replaced its drab and now decommissioned predecessor.

Located 30km north of downtown and linked by freeway to the city centre, the airport opened just in time for this year’s World Cup with the aim of creating an international entry point that would ease pressure on Johannesburg and Cape Town. It can process 7.5 million passengers a year, with scope for expansion if needed, and has the capacity to handle the A380. With longer runways and more check-in counters, shops and dining outlets inside the 102,000sqm terminal, it offers greater space and less congestion than the old facility, which was located south of the city.

King Shaka is one of Durban’s two new showpiece projects – the other is the gleaming 70,000-seat Moses Mabhida Stadium (mosesmabhidastadium.co.za), which many claim is the country’s best. Now being used for a variety of sports including football, it is also planned to be a concert venue and location for big rallies.

While Johannesburg is South Africa’s commercial heart and Cape Town attracts more foreigners, mildly tropical Durban has increasing clout. It’s the nation’s leading domestic tourism destination, thanks to its splendid road links to Johannesburg and heavily promoted beach resorts, and it also boasts Africa’s busiest cargo port and extensive conference facilities. Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre (www.icc.co.za), renamed after an early anti-apartheid hero but still generally referred to as the ICC, accommodates 10,000 delegates when used in tandem with the adjoining Durban Exhibition Centre, and successfully competes with its smaller rivals in the other two cities.

Durban is South Africa’s major Zulu city, the largest metropolis in Kwa Zulu-Natal province, and locals announce with pride that President Jacob Zuma is the first Zulu to lead

the country. Of the city’s 3.5 million people, 70 percent are black (almost all Zulu) and 20 percent Indian – this is South Africa’s most Indian city. Bangu Masisi, country representative at South African Tourism, says: “Durban is termed the ‘spice city’ because of its strong Indian influence.” The rest of this ‘rainbow nation’ polyglot is comprised of whites (mainly English speakers) and a tiny minority of Cape Coloureds.

Masisi says Durban’s diverse mix of manufacturing and other businesses is facilitated by good infrastructure. “[There’s also] the beachside lifestyle and easy access to Zulu cultural interaction and wildlife parks,” she adds. City of Durban municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe, often called “the man who runs Durban”, cites the “warmth of the people and the vibrant food, fashion and music scenes” as other pluses often noted by business visitors.

From my hotel, I wander to my first meeting of the day. It’s 18 months since my previous visit and it is instantly apparent that Durban, like other South African cities, has had a lick of paint. The World Cup provided an opportunity to upgrade infrastructure, although in Durban’s case this didn’t involve building new offices and hotels so much as sprucing up what already existed.

My hotel is along OR Tambo Parade, part of a Golden Mile facing white-sand beaches – Durban is among few coastal cities where business districts brush against holiday strips. Previously known as Marine Parade, to showcase national unity, this Zulu city has renamed it after the late Oliver Reginald Tambo, a previous African National Congress leader and member of the country’s other big tribe, the Xhosa. (Johannesburg’s airport also bears his name.)

Business visitors often opt to stay along or near the Parade because of its proximity to businesses and the convention centre, as well as to the beaches and good restaurants. Top lodgings include the Protea Hotel Edward (www.proteahotels.com) and the Hilton Durban (www.hilton.co.uk), situated alongside the ICC. Still, Nicholas Barenblatt, group marketing manager at Protea Hotels, Africa’s largest chain, says that since the new airport opened, some now prefer the northern beach suburb of Umhlanga Rocks because of its location (15 minutes by cab to the airport and less than 30 minutes to downtown) and relaxed atmosphere with beaches, golf and vast shopping malls. A legacy of World Cup-linked developments, he adds, is “improved travel into Durban and more accommodation options”, and new business-oriented hotels here include the year-old Protea Umhlanga Ridge.

A few blocks away from OR Tambo, in the financial district, I notice fewer hustlers than on previous trips. Clean-up campaigns have been successful. Durban is safe for daytime walking, but don’t carry valuables and be alert – tourism officials recommend taxis at night.

The new airport is part of a greater Dube Tradeport complex that is still incomplete, although Mohamed Hamza, general manager of the Hilton Durban, says that it will encompass “an industrial zone, perishable goods facility, freight transfer capability and retail opportunities”. Sugar is one of Durban’s main exports, while textiles, chemicals, fertilisers, foods and confectionery are also produced here. Property, banking and insurance niches – smaller than Johannesburg’s – include major firms, and long-established service industries depend on a flourishing mining sector estimated to worth US$2.5-trillion.

For entertaining, try the Hilton’s Rainbow Terrace – widely spaced tables permit confidential discussion, and locals rate hotel eateries highly. It showcases South African beef and lamb alongside Durban’s own seafood and a few Indian dishes – South African Indian, while spicy, tends to be milder and sweeter. The stylish wood-panelled interior of the Protea Edward’s bar is also a good option for meeting associates. If you want a less formal environment, Moyo at Ushaka Pier (moyo.co.za) – alongside the vast Ushaka Marine World theme park – serves African and Western dishes to a soundtrack of live African music.

Durban’s beaches, nightlife, shopping and casinos demand only brief interruptions to your business schedule, but adding a weekend brings nearby wildlife parks into range – for instance, luxurious Thula Thula or Hluhluwe game reserve, where Zulu king Shaka reputedly hunted. Hluhluwe has the “big five” – lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and buffaloes – while diversions such as Shakaland, a traditional Zulu village about 130km north of the city, offer a quick dip into local culture. So this increasingly important African business destination has much to offer in the way of fun too.