Britain's beleaguered travel industry was not focusing on England's opponents in last night's World Cup draw, but on the venues where the team will play.
In travel terms, South Africa 2010 is unlike any previous tournament. Flying is the only realistic way for the vast majority of fans to get there, and air and rail links within South Africa will be stretched. Accommodation has been at a premium ever since the qualifiers for the finals were known.
The event's organisers anticipate more supporters from England than from any other nation – and the airlines expect to clean up. Within minutes of the draw, prices for flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg in time for England's opening match against the USA in Rustenburg had risen by hundred of pounds: the cheapest ticket on Virgin Atlantic was nearly £4,000. The shuttle flights on Kulula – South Africa's version of easyJet – between Johannesburg and Cape Town are normally as little as £50, but had climbed to £200.
The sharpest price rises were for rental cars; up to 6pm yesterday, Hertz was offering a saloon car, picked up at Johannesburg airport on the day the tournament begins, for under £25 per day. Within an hour that price had risen to more than £110. Prices would have climbed even more steeply had England been drawn against another big European nation, such as France; few fans from England's American, Algerian and Slovenian opponents are expected to make the journey.
From a tourist's, as well as a fan's point of view, Group C is the best of all worlds. Rustenburg is very close to the sublime Pilanesberg National Park, and the ridiculous Sun City complex – the nearest South Africa gets to Las Vegas. Cape Town is the continent's finest city, with a hinterland that includes superb wine country and great beaches.
The travel industry will publicly get behind England's bid to recapture the glory days of 1966 – but in reality it will long for a quick exit. International sporting events dampen demand from prospective holidaymakers. People won't book until England either win, or get knocked out. When Portugal knocked out England in the last World Cup, the resulting flood of bookings was described as "like watching a dam burst", according to an industry insider.
Heading South: World Cup venues
*England vs USA, 12 June 2010
Situated in North West province at the foot of the Magaliesberg mountain range, Rustenburg (pop. 400,000) is one of the smaller cities hosting games. Sleepy, it is best known for its proximity to wildlife, including the Pilanesberg National Park and Magaliesberg Nature Reserve. For the more discerning England fan, it is a wine region of 330 years’ standing. England’s base camp is right around the corner, in the Bafokeng Sports Campus. The stadium, the delightfully named Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, has a modest capacity of 42,000. In winter (June in South Africa), the temperature averages between about 17C and 20C.
*England vs Algeria, 18 June 2010
Breath-catching scenery, world-class restaurants, laidback bars, friendly people – the one unknown about South Africa’s oldest city will be the weather. On nice June days, temperatures in Cape Town reach 25C; on grotty ones, the rain is driven sideways by cold wind. After the game at the new 70,000-seater Cape Town Stadium, situated between Table Mountain and Robben Island, Long Street is the place to party into the early hours, but bouncers will have to relax the no-shorts rule.
Visitors flying in will drive past metal huts bordering the road to the airport – the Cape Flats where most of the 3.5m Capetonians live, a world away from well-off residents’ lavish gated communities. There is a risk of street muggings and crime, so walking after dark is foolish. More excitable members of England’s traveling contingency may try great white shark diving in nearby Gansbaai.
* Slovenia vs England, 23 June 2010
South Africa’s second oldest city, it sits at the end of the Garden Route, the scenic stretch of south-eastern coast. It has a warm climate and only one wet day in 10 during summer. At only 100 feet, it is at a very low relative altitude. After the game in the 49,500-capacity Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, England fans will be able to join some of the 1.2 million locals in the waterfront’s bars and clubs, which have a reputation for their week-night karaoke. Other attractions include the gardens at St George’s Park, the King George VI Art Gallery, and the museum and oceanography room at Humewood. Port Elizabeth has suffered from the same problems as other South African cities since the end of the Apartheid era, particularly a surge in violent, often drug-related, crime. However, investment in the city from abroad and a booming real estate industry are changing its outlook.