Football: Plenty of hotels, but some long drives for World Cup fans

With 450,000 visitors expected in South Africa for the World Cup, organisers are at pains to reassure that fans will find enough hotel rooms -- but not always in smaller host cities on match days.

(AFP) -

With 450,000 visitors expected in South Africa for the World Cup, organisers are at pains to reassure that fans will find enough hotel rooms - but not always in smaller host cities on match days.

The surge in demand during the South African winter, typically low season for tourism, has also sent prices soaring up to six times the normal rates.

That's raised fears that South Africa could miss out on a chance to market itself as tourist spot if it scares away return visitors with high prices.

South Africa already receives more than nine million tourists a year, and the country has more than 200,000 rooms available, according Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for the World Cup organisers.

But many hotels are concentrated in major cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, where no problems are expected.

Smaller host cities like the northern town of Polokwane and Nelspruit, a gateway to Kruger national park, won't have enough rooms, especially if they play host to big games.

Vivienne Bervoets, an accommodation manager at FIFA's hospitality scheme known as Match, says South Africa has enough rooms if they are used properly.

Match is still 8,000 short of the 55,000 rooms it wants to book, she said, and has even started working with a service that is booking private homes to rent out to fans, she said.

Organisers have known all along that fans would likely need to use bigger cities as a base and then shuttle to smaller venues, she added.

"Due to the demand on accommodation as a whole and the possibility of increased demand for peak matches, our strategy has always been to draw on accommodation nationally to support all host cities," she told AFP.

Match is broadening its reach by including guesthouses and bed and breakfasts for the first time, which South Africa hopes will help small entrepreneurs get into the game.

"This will be the legacy the tournament will leave behind," said Thembi Kunene, who works with the national tourism authority's hotel grading council.

"We are going to improve our small and medium enterprises sector," he said.

Many of those small guesthouses, and even large hotel chains like Hyatt, are choosing not to work with Match because they don't want to be forced to hand over large blocks of rooms.

Small businesses also say they don't want to go through the expense of having their establishments graded for a star ranking.

"We didn't sign because Match is trying to force it (grading) down our throats, which is meant to be voluntary," said Peter Hamm, a director at the Bed and Breakfast Association of South Africa, which has more than 4,000 members.

"We are doing our own marketing and most of our establishments are fully booked," though not always by football fans, he said.

Hoping to ease congestion on the streets, South Africa has changed its school calendar so that students will take their mid-year vacation during the World Cup, meaning many local families are also now scrambling for rooms.

Taken together, many airlines and hotels are advertising rates up to six times their prices. While mark-up during major events happens everywhere in the world, tourism officials worry that sky-high rates will damage South Africa's reputation as a reasonably priced destination.

"We had complaints about establishments and private homes charging and Exorbitant prices and we are concerned. We ask people to be reasonable and not to escalate prices," Mkhondo said.

"South Africa is a free market economy and its a supply and demand issue there is nothing we can do about it," Kunene said.

"We are appealing to people's capitalism instincts that please don't overcharge and create a bad name for our country and industry."

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