Time to rate the World Cup hosts
The two rest days in the World Cup are just what South Africa needs to catch its breath, take a step back and do some self examination. With three quarters of the 32 teams out of the country, including the big names of England, USA, Italy and France, it's an ideal opportunity to see how the tourism industry has profited so far.
A year ago, FIFA was anticipating half a million foreigners to invade the southern tip of Africa for the tournament. That figure was revised down to 450 000, down again to 400,000 and finally settled at 350,000 as a result of the global economic meltdown and poor ticket sales. The majority of tickets sold outside South Africa went to people in the USA, with Europe next, and tickets sold to people in other African countries were at a disappointing low.
Better economic times and an increased profile for South Africa abroad saw things change in a drastic way. Immigration authorities reported that over 450 000 visitors arrived between June 1 and 13 with the sole purpose of attending the World Cup, exceeding expectations by over 100,000 people. That was just in the first two days of the tournament and the number is now set to exceed the half a million that was originally predicted.
Major cities in South Africa have turned into miniature United Nations with tourists proudly sporting gear from the country they are here to support. The South and North Americans have been the most easily spotted, while the Mexicans are the most easily recognisable in their emerald green sweaters and scarves. Walking around a shopping centre in Johannesburg has never been such a colourful experience, with different accents springing up all over the place and men and women from all corners of the globe marvelling at our home.
They haven't just been looking, they've been spending too. VISA reported that up to June 20, $128 million had been spent with their cards on accommodation, food and retail. The biggest spenders were from the UK, USA, Australia, France and Brazil. Mexico came in eighth place, with Canada in ninth, despite the Canadians not even having a team of their own in the tournament.
As the teams have been culled, so too have the number of tourists from that region, and many foreigners are now on their way home. Their journey back to their respective lands and the tales they tell their friends and family will be the biggest test of South Africa as a host. SA Tourism is relying on word-of-mouth marketing to promote the country as a premier destination to people from all over the world. They believe their job of creating a world-class experience through the tournament is done, and now await the results. Sugen Naidoo of SA Tourism said: "Our campaign has been a great success and now the measure of that success will be based on whether people come back here."
To gauge the general feelings of homeward-bound tourists, a local television channel sent one of its reporters to the airport to interview people who were leaving. "South Africa, the best," said one Mexican fan as he walked towards the terminal. An American interrupted, "This has positively been the best three weeks of my life", while an Englishman gave SA Tourism their biggest affirmation when he said: "It is a truly great country, I will go home and tell people to book their flights to South Africa now."
What about South Africa being known as the crime capital of the world? Swift justice and special courts have ensured that tourists who were victims of crime often had their cases solved in days (locals can wait months or even years at the best of times) and a much more disciplined attitude of the police force has made people feel safer. One Honduran fan said: "The perception of South Africa overseas is quite different to what the country actually is." An American added: "On television news they were saying there's a lot of violence but I didn't see none of that, it's a great country."
Many visitors of varying nationalities agreed that South Africa is a lot more hospitable and lot less nightmarish than it's made out to be and they said they would like to come back and will recommend it to friends. So far, the numbers have exceeded expectations, and if the tourism industry works this hard to ensure foreigners feel safe and enjoy their stay, South African tourism could reap long-term benefits beyond what they had hoped for from the World Cup.