As the qualifying matches for football’s World Cup come to a close over the coming weeks, thousands of people around the world will be planning trips to the tournament to be held next June in South Africa.
Some, like me, have already snapped up tickets on FIFA’s website, which have been on sale since spring. Shelling out the best part of £1,000 to get there from Europe is fair enough – it is, after all, on the other side of the world. But then comes the shock of trying to book somewhere to stay and internal flights (the country is huge, so you need to shuttle between cities for games).
A ticket from Johannesburg to Cape Town that would cost £70 in May or late July, costs £190 or more in June (and presumably they will continue to go up). Two-star hotels are offering ropey accommodation for £500 a night; miniscule studio apartments are £350 a night.
This attempt to blatantly empty the wallets of visitors is reminiscent of the concern many had when Moscow was chosen to host the Champions League Final between two English teams last May. To everyone’s amazement, the Russians pulled off the event remarkably well. The painful process of acquiring Russian visas was waived for anyone with a ticket. Moreover, the city authorities clearly stated that they would fine any hotel found to be charging more than 30 per cent over its normal rates during the Final period. This sensible rule meant that hotels could take advantage of the hordes of fans flooding the city and make a bigger profit than usual, but were not allowed to hold visitors to ransom.
In the end, tens of thousands of British fans left Russia mostly impressed with the country and the way they were treated. (Whether Russia will be able to pull off the same trick at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, an event on a similar scale to the World Cup, remains to be seen. Early signs suggest not.)
While handing the World Cup and Olympics to developing countries such as South Africa and Russia can be a tremendous stimulus to promoting economic development and national pride, there is a risk that these events can turn into a disaster without proper management.
There are signs that some South African companies are reading from the right page. Low-cost internal carrier Mango, which is due to release its flights for the World Cup period next month, has promised to quadruple its number of services but not to raise fares.
“South Africa should approach the tournament as a potential long-term commercial opportunity, not an opportunity to simply rake in greenbacks. Inflated pricing is just a turn off,” says the company’s CEO Nico Bezuidenhout. “I believe this is an opportunity to showcase our country and not to allow visitors to return home with a negative perception.”
More companies in South Africa need to start thinking like this, or the government and FIFA need to force them to, or the tournament will be a PR own goal.