May 12th, 2010
04:14 PM GMT
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Next month, the biggest sporting tournament to ever take place in Africa begins. The football World Cup is 30 days away and many South Africans across the country are excited.

However, there is also the sinking realization that this World Cup is not going to be as big and as lucrative as many initially hoped.

Disappointment is already setting in for those small business owners who had hoped to cash in on the tournament. Lots of ‘mom and pop’ establishments, such as small town bed and breakfast accommodation and local restaurants, had hoped they would make a mint from the hundreds of thousands of fans who were expected to descend on the ten host cities during the month-long tournament.

The numbers of foreign fans are being dramatically revised – only one hundred or two hundred thousand visitors are expected. That is half the number of visitors many here thought would come during June and July.

So the owners of smaller establishments on the outskirts of towns – many of which have spent precious savings upgrading buildings or adding extensions – say they are faced with the prospect of missing out on the benefits of hosting the World Cup.

Cape Town Tourism says that bookings for accommodation just outside the city and in the suburbs are way below expectations, although hotels in the city center and near the stadium are full. The same trend appears to hold true for the rest of the country.

There are many reasons for this outlook – the most important is the current global economic situation. Many football fans just don’t have the money to travel to a long-haul destination for two or three weeks. The last World Cup in Germany was a different type of destination, say the analysts, because a French, Italian or English fan could just jump on a train or book a cheap flight to watch a match. South Africa 2010 is a serious financial commitment for even the most dedicated football fan.

There is also the argument – put forward by many here – that the initial expectations of nearly half a million visitors was totally unrealistic. Some have even suggested that many South Africans were being greedy or short-sighted to expect the World Cup to be a financial windfall.

Either way, the number of people traveling here could decrease even more in the next month because of two potential problems. The ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano could paralyze travel out of Europe again. Also, British Airways staff have voted to go on strike on June 5th – just a few days before the opening game on June 11.

But there is also the happy realization that visitor numbers are entirely dependent on the vagaries of football. It all boils down to the final whistle at key matches. So, the tourist tally could be based on who makes the final stages. If England, for example, makes it to the final then South African hosts with empty beds will be wringing their hands in glee as they prepare themselves for last-minute bookings from die-hard football fans who will travel across the world to see their team. No matter what the cost.

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