Arrival of fans will be a real test

Robert Block in Johannesburg looks at South Africa's readiness
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If you listen to the organisers and promoters of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, then everything is in place and ready for both teams and supporters alike ahead of next week's kick-off. But then, they have to say that.

After decades as an international pariah, the Rugby World Cup is considered by South Africans - especially the mainly white fans - as a kind of welcome back to civilisation by the international sporting world. Much is riding on South Africa's handling of the event, not least its aspirations to be a main future tourist attraction.

So after reports that the South African Rugby Football Union president, Louis Luyt, had criticised the directors of the World Cup and their arrangements for the tournament, both local organisers and tourist operators sought to downplay any negative reflections on the country's readiness to host the event.

"Top notch," is how Arrie Oberho, the Sarfu chief administrator, described preparations for the games.

Sarfu is responsible for the 16 teams once they arrive in South Africa. "All flights and all accomodations for all teams have been booked to cover all contingencies," he said.

However, the real test of South Africa's readiness to host the World Cup will come next week when the first of the anticipated 55,000 fans arrive. Already there are signs that, despite the best planning in the world, South Africa might not be ready for such an onslaught.

South African Airways has added 31 international flights and 230 domestic flights and also hired planes from other companies to cope with the increased demand. Nevertheless seats on flights to the more important games, such as the opening match and the semi-finals, are virtually sold out. "People are battling to find a way to get to Cape Town for next Thursday because there is no space anywhere on any carrier," one Johannesburg travel agent said.

Driving may not be the answer either as hiring a car could be a problem. While Avis, the country's largest rental agency with a fleet of 7,000 vehicles, said it had plenty of small cars available for hire throughout the World Cup, luxury cars, large estate cars, vans and minibusses are heavily booked.

For fans planning to visit games outside of Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, car hire will be extremley difficult. An Avis agent said it was cheaper and more secure for fans from Britain to book a car in South Africa from home.

Such is not the case with hotels. Almost all of them have raised their prices considerably for the tournament. For instance, Holiday Inn Courtyard Hotels, a chain of three-star hotels, have increased their tarrifs by up to 70 per cent. The biggest price hikes have come in Johannesburg, where there are still rooms available. Cape Town and Durban, however, are more or less fully booked.

"There is a perception that flights and hotels are booked throughout the World Cup, but it's only the critical periods when they will be difficult to find. All of us involved in the planning for this event have done our homework and tried to plan for all possibilities. But there is no such thing as a perfect plan," Leon Els, a senior SAA manager, said.

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