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Finding Local Travel Opportunity in South Africa around the World Cup

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 9 February 2010

The clock’s ticking. Every hour we move closer to 4pm South Africa time on 11 June 2010, when the World Cup 2010 kicks off in Johannesburg’s Soccer City Stadium. The anticipation is palpable, but so is the growing frustration and sometimes anger about the absurd room rates and out-of-focus travel opportunities in a country driven by high expectations.

This African Gospel Church - a structure like many in the townships - is in the Langa Township in the Flats outside Cape Town

So what are you to do? Are there reasonably priced accommodation options anywhere in South Africa? How can one find exciting and responsible travel options beyond the pomp of a month of games? And, as we’ve written about already, is there any way of ensuring that some of the money spent will be fairly distributed, so that the inflated profits benefit as wide a cross-section of people as possible, not just the already rich and powerful?

Opportunism and Exploitation

We’ve seen a growing number of articles decrying the avarice of accommodation owners in South Africa as they set special room rates to laughably outrageous levels. “Research this week on Hotels.com UK website showed that the four-star, centrally located Cape Town Lodge Hotel, which from May 28 to June 5 charges £68 per room per night, is raising its rate on June 11, when the tournament gets under way, to £395,” reported Travelmole in mid-December 2009. “Hotel rates always rise during big sporting events: during the Olympic Games in Athens (2004) and Sydney (2000) they were three times the usual level. But the increases in South Africa almost match those made during the Beijing Olympics, when hoteliers were accused of exploitation.”

The lion is one of the Big Five found in Kruger National Park

The lion is one of the Big Five found in Kruger National Park, the country’s largest game reserve and a superb place for a safari (photo courtesy of South African Tourism)

“The World Cup has brought out the worst in some sectors of the tourism industry both in South Africa and abroad, but it seems that this is a phenomenon that follows every big event of this sort,” added Martin Hatchuel, the South African travel writer who publishes www.thistourismweek.co.za. “I have had quite a bit of contact with people in Australia who tell me that Sydney suffered a decline in tourism in the three years following its Olympics – and the reason most people seemed to have for avoiding the city as a destination was ‘greed.’ So South Africa is not alone.”

Given the price gouging and apparent absence of reasonable oversight, one real fear is that not only will little of any profits actually reach the local level, but that any backlash suffered as a result of unfair market practices will hurt locals the most.

Finding a Fair Room

One way of helping to make a small difference – and help redress some of the possible imbalances – is to book accommodation and tours with locally run, small-scale lodges and tour operators, especially those committed to bringing opportunity to the townships. This is not only in keeping with FIFA’s social development policy of providing support to community-based organisations, it also provides alternative lodging options in World Cup host cities where exploitative pricing is now evident.

In fact, continued Hatchuel, “It seems to me that the people who are being most sensible about this World Cup are those who own the smaller accommodation establishments and other small tourism businesses.”

To help the price-daunted World Cup fan, below is a list of off-the-beaten-track lodging options on offer through whl.travel, in some cases the only online booking service available for these properties. While other hotels are charging outlandish rates, these B&Bs promise not to bamboozle their customers. Their rates will be higher than usual, but still most definitely a bargain, especially considering the unbeatable cultural experience of life in a South African township (especially during the World Cup) and the assurance that the money spent is actually reaching the people.

Cape Town

Mossel Bay (on the Garden Route, midway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth)

Meeting the People

Whether or not alternative accommodation is key, meeting the people and experiencing the country should be. In a previous blog post, we’ve already proposed community or nature tours and activities in or near the World Cup host cities. What follows is a more targeted list to help zero in.

Traditional Xhosa dancers in South Africa perform for guests at a Mossel Bay township's first non-alcoholic shabeen

Traditional Xhosa dancers in South Africa perform for guests at a Mossel Bay township's first non-alcoholic shabeen and day-care centre

Cape Town
whl.travel offers access to a variety of community-based cultural and volunteer experiences, including:

Nelspruit
Nelspruit is quite close to Kruger National Park and the Panorama Route, as well as within several hour’s drive of the Mpumalanga Highlands.

All three are superb destinations with a broad offering of nature-oriented and outdoor activities, like river rafting, geckoiing, mountain biking, zip-line flying, rock abseiling, mountain boarding and following an aerial cable trail over a forest.

Animal enthusiasts will find satisfaction in visits to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre for abandoned, injured and poisoned wildlife or to an elephant sanctuary.

Geckoiing is the use of a small raft steered using webbed gloves

Geckoiing is the use of a small raft steered using webbed gloves. It is one of the best ways to have fun with family and friends.

Port Elizabeth and the Garden Route
In Port Elizabeth, both a Shebeen Tour and a Real City Tour bring travellers to the heart of township life, while the Addo Tour spends a day at the famous Addo Elephant National Park.

Further west, along the Garden Route, a Meet the People Tour out of Mossel Bay is an absolute must, although a coastal cliff hike, game drive in Fynbos or horseback ride through a private game preserve are also a treat.

The Day After It’s Over

Not long after Sepp Blatter, FIFA president, declared “This World Cup belongs to Africa!” on the day of the World Cup 2010 draw, Nelson Mandela, appearing via video link, closed a short speech by saying that “The people of Africa have learned the lessons of patience and endurance in their long struggle for freedom. May the reward brought by the World Cup prove that the long wait for its arrival on African soil has been worth it.”

It’s time to wonder if the reward, so promising in principle, is still out of reach in practice because of misguided expectations about who is coming to the World Cup, how much they can afford and how widely they will travel after it’s all over.

“I think that the organisers of the World Cup and the tourism authorities in South Africa have missed – or failed to communicate – one important piece of intelligence: the demographics of the average soccer traveller,” said Hatchuel. “I have a suspicion that most of them will be males in the 24-32 year bracket, and if that’s the case, I expect they’ll be sticking to the host cities, and looking for the parties rather than travelling round the country.”

If that does turn out to be true, then it’s even more important that the mindful minority shows genuine interest in more than just sport and partying, both during the World Cup and after it’s over. South Africa can’t afford to suffer as Sydney did for its greed.

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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adventure travel, Africa, animal conservation, cities, ecotours, festivals & events, game reserves, local knowledge, outdoors, responsible travel, responsible travel news, safaris, South Africa, Southern Africa,

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