Disappointed by World Cup bookings, South African tourism looks for long-term gains


DURBAN, South Africa — Disappointed by bookings for the World Cup, South Africa’s tourism industry says benefits could accrue for years from the publicity around the world’s most-watched sporting event.

“At the start, we thought that 450,000 people will come, then 375,000 and even 250,000 people,” said Thandiwe January-McLean, head of the country’s tourism board, on the sidelines of the region’s biggest industry conference, which wraps up Tuesday.

But what’s more important, she said, are the 26 billion viewers around the world who will watch the matches on television, an unrivalled opportunity for South Africa to promote itself.

“The World Cup will forever change the world’s perception of South Africa,” President Jacob Zuma said at the opening of the Tourism Indaba in Durban.

About 9.9 million tourists visited South Africa last year, and the number is expected to top 10 million this year while steadily rising over the long-term.

But tourism businesses still don’t hide their disappointment at their weaker-than-expected gains from the tournament, which kicks off June 11.

“We had very little business from the World Cup,” said Sue Berry, of Exclusive Getaways, a Johannesburg tour operator. “Expectations regarding the World Cup were too high.”

High airfares for the long-haul flights to South Africa, worries about the high crime rate, and the system of hotel reservations used by FIFA’s hospitality partner Match were some of the deterrents.

Since December, hundreds of thousands of room reservations have been released by Match as bookings fell short of expectations.

“Match released the reservations too late, we can’t market them any more,” said Berry.

“I don’t think we’re going to sell what has been cancelled,” said Ian Anderson, marketing director for Sun International hotels.

Match canceled 15 percent of its reservations at Sun’s hotels in South Africa, and also scaled back its bookings at hotels in neighbouring countries, Anderson said.

“In those countries, the impact will be minimum” from the World Cup, he said, but added that he remained optimistic about the long-term gains.

“In the long run, we’re going to win,” he said.

Some operators say they’re actually seeing a decline in business during the World Cup, which has drawn most bookings toward major cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

Smaller venues that depend on domestic travellers say their bookings are down as South Africans put off holidays to avoid high prices during the tournament, or stay home to watch matches in their cities.

“We have less reservations than without the World Cup,” said Gerald Debroglio, who runs lodges in remote parts of Kruger and Santa Lucia national parks.

“From a business point of view, we are not happy, but it will be a good event,” he said.

And the gains may only come in the months and years to come, after the world gets a look at South Africa on their televisions.

“Marketing globally helps,” said Anne-Claude Bergonzoli, general manager for the luxury hotel group, which has more than 20 members in South Africa.

“The majority of our bookings is post World Cup,” she said.