JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africans are getting World Cup fever in anticipation of the huge soccer tournament to be held here in June.
The World Cup is less than 80 days away and for Soweto resident Bongane Mbwesa, it is a dream come true.
"I got my tickets to the opening match here in Johannesburg, I ordered them and put my name in for the ticket draw. They are cheap seats, but now, like the TV commercial, I can say, I was there." He might have held out.
Bongane is one of many South Africans who are poised to benefit from the drastic drop in ticket prices and greater availability of tickets in South Africa. The South African press is full of reports that the World Cup organizer, FIFA, is slashing prices of some of the tickets after demand has been lower than expected, and particularly international demand.
One glaring question, especially for foreign visitors, is South Africa's security. The country has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime. Assurances that South African police are gearing up to provide good security were not helped by the news in February of a high profile murder of a marketing manager of the Sun City mega-resort complex. The massive casino complex two hours from Johannesburg will host World Cup teams and fans, and the killing, like a bold robbery earlier in February, brought the international spotlight onto what some fear may be a dangerous place to host the world's largest sporting event.
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The stadiums, new roads and other infrastructure projects are all projected to be finished by kick off on June 11, and the Gautrain, a high-speed rail link between Johannesburg's Oliver Tambo airport and the upscale suburb of Sandton is currently being tested. According to project developers Bombela, it will hopefully be ready to ferry thousands of tourists to Sandton's posh hotels. But are there still beds at the inn?
Hotels are filling up, but surprisingly they are not full yet. The Cape Times reports that flagship hotels like the Cape Grace still have availability, with about 90 percent of their rooms taken. In the middle of the market, it is still possible to book a Holiday Inn, but dates are filling up fast. Calls to Johannesburg hotels, from Soweto to Sandton and near the airport, showed only a few rooms available. Staff say that although at first sales and reservations were not as robust as hoped, in the last month there has been a huge upsurge in interest, particularly from other African countries and the Far East.
FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke admitted to a British newspaper that the numbers of visitors for the World Cup had been lower than projected, and ticket prices, available only for South African residents, have been cut from $110 to about $20. This is putting great seats in the hands of locals, who have loudly denounced the previous ticket prices as being out of touch with the financial constraints of most football-loving South Africans.
According to Valcke, it is the current worldwide financial crisis that has meant more expensive seats need to be devalued. FIFA blames airlines, hotels and other related industries for raising prices and scaring away tourists.
That flight costs have been increased during the World Cup is undeniable. Round trip flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town this month cost about $280, but during the World Cup the median fare is more than three times that amount. International flights into South Africa are running at about double their usual price, and will probably keep increasing as the World Cup draws closer.
Americans wishing to see the games in person can still book a trip on South African Airways' website for about $3,300 but very few economy class seats are available, particularly on the direct flights from New York's John F. Kennedy airport.
Whether it is security concerns or prices that have kept the expected visitor numbers down, there is little to suggest that the event will be a failure.
Bongane believes that for the majority of lower income South Africans, the chance to see the World Cup may be the biggest event of their lives. He explains in a quiet voice while reading the news that prices had dropped, "this is a good thing, even if I bought my tickets at the higher price. Africans love soccer, and this means more of us will be able to see it. It's the World Cup."
He shakes his head, as if he just can't quite believe it is happening here. "I mean, we will be there, with our families, with our friends, it's like a dream come true."