DURBAN, South Africa -- On the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, this country's biggest-ever coming-out party, one major question looms in the hearts and minds of South Africans: Will the first international sporting event of this scale on African soil be a success?
A lot rides on the answer, because while success will be measured by many criteria, what they all have in common is that they tie directly or indirectly to South Africa's potential as a tourism destination.
First and foremost, success will be measured in terms of security. With some 370,000 visitors (the precise number remains unclear, but more on that later) expected to head to South Africa sometime during the World Cup, in addition to the billions of viewers expected to be watching from home, all eyes will be on South Africa from June 11 through July 11.
South Africa has let the world know it is amping up its security efforts significantly for the World Cup. The South African government said a dedicated force of 41,000 police officers is being deployed for the event, and recent news reports put the number at 44,000.
Interpol announced it would be deploying the largest number of officers in its history in addition to providing South Africa's law enforcement agencies with key operational support on the ground.
"It's the experience here that will give us all our best or our worst word-of-mouth referrals," South Africa Tourism CEO Thandiwe January-McLean said during her organization's Indaba travel show here this month.
For a country that has worked hard to pull itself out of social, political and economic turmoil in the 20 years since former president Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the wounds from apartheid began to heal, that kind of exposure represents an enormous opportunity to showcase its progress. But it also poses huge risks in exposing South Africa's existing challenges.
"What is novel for this competition is that FIFA also appreciates and understands that the success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on the field will be greatly enhanced through law enforcement ensuring a safe and secure environment off the field," Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said in a statement this month.
Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to the event, new threats have surfaced. Earlier this month, news media reported a thwarted plan, possibly backed by al-Qaida, to attack the Dutch and Danish teams at the World Cup.
In a show of force designed to calm concerns and display confidence in the face of such threats, South Africa's security forces two weeks ago paraded their World Cup arsenal through the streets of Johannesburg.
In a concurrent press statement, South Africa Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said the government had been working to curb crime and boost antiterrorism intelligence in the lead-up to the matches.
"South Africa will host the safest and most secure FIFA World Cup," Mthethwa said. "This must leave a lasting security legacy that must guarantee further attraction of visitors [after] the tournament."
Panning for tourism gold
If all goes well and there aren't any headline-grabbing security breaches during the World Cup, the next measure of success will be gauging the return on the massive investment the tourism industry has made in the FIFA World Cup.
"The tourism industry has spent about $2 billion since 2004," said Roshene Singh, chief marketing officer for South Africa Tourism. "That is an investment that is there for us to use."
In the final months and weeks leading up to the tournament, it has become clear that, as is often the case with international sporting events such as the Olympics, the visitor numbers the country had been counting on simply won't materialize.
Initially, South Africa had been counting on some 500,000 visitors during the World Cup. Slowly that number has diminished, with some estimates now pegging it as low as 150,000 to 200,000.
Even so, Jerome Valcke, secretary general of FIFA, the international soccer governing body, told reporters at a news conference during Indaba, "Definitely, we will be in the range of 370,000 international visitors to the World Cup."
With regard to World Cup-driven sales, "there's obviously an element of disappointment because of the economy," said Neil Fraser, director of sales and marketing at Southern Sun, a hotel group with more than 50 properties in South Africa.
In addition to the lingering effects of the global economic crisis, companies like Southern Sun experienced yet another setback when, in April, Match Services, the official ticketing and accommodation company for FIFA, returned large blocks of unsold hotel rooms and flight tickets to suppliers, leaving them just a few months to sell off the remaining inventory.
"There are unhappy stakeholders, because they felt they could have started selling product much earlier rather than wait for the release," said South Africa Tourism's January-McLean. "Those people who have been affected have been upset."
Addressing the challenges it has faced with Match Services, FIFA's Valcke admitted that "all has not worked well." He added he would address the challenge, both here in South Africa and with regard to future World Cup tournaments such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. But he also said that would be a "discussion I will have in-house."
Match Services returned approximately 30% of it Southern Sun hotel block. And in April, Protea Hotels, a South African chain with 95 properties across the country, saw Match Services return 10% of Protea's Johannesburg inventory and 50% of its remaining South Africa inventory.
South African Airways CEO Siza Mzimela told reporters at Indaba that Match Services had returned some 45,000 tickets to the airline in April.
"We're now finding ourselves with 45,000 seats at a very late date," Mzimela said. "That's the current challenge that we have."
According to South African Airways, most of the tickets Match Services returned were for domestic flights and were from a lower fare bracket, which had the effect of lowering prices.
But while suppliers are rushing to sell off whatever inventory they can in the lead-up to the World Cup, the focus has shifted from the economic opportunities that present themselves during the event to maximizing the longer-term benefits to be realized from the international exposure.
"The FIFA 2010 World Cup will forever change the world's perception of South Africa," South African President Jacob Zuma said at the opening ceremony of Indaba. "Scores of tourists are expected to descend on our country in the next few weeks. This expected influx has led to an upgrading of facilities and skills in the tourism industry that will remain with us long after the World Cup."
Zuma pointed out that the World Cup has been the impetus for infrastructure development and job creation, including among other things a $9.6 billion revitalization of the country's roads, from which both South Africans and those courting visitors to South Africa will benefit long-term.
January-McLean said, "It is the period after the World Cup that holds the most promise for us. The greatest challenge lies ahead."
For South Africa Tourism and the country's travel industry, that means fully leveraging all the publicity. For better or worse, there has been plenty of media coverage of South Africa in the lead-up to the World Cup, and that coverage will only increase during the actual soccer matches.
But the key to converting soccer fans into visitors is elusive.
Citing the high cost, South Africa Tourism will not be advertising on any of the networks that will be broadcasting the World Cup -- ABC, ESPN and Univision -- but it is banking on spillover publicity from destination-focused TV and print stories that run during and around the World Cup.
Interest in South Africa as a destination is already on the rise, so by the end of this year, the numbers will show whether the World Cup helped or hindered that growth.
"In a global recession, we continue to get growth," said South Africa Tourism's Singh. She said South Africa saw a 3.7% growth in tourist arrivals last year, while much of the world experienced a decline.
"We're definitely on a path where we only can improve," Singh said.
While some of the infrastructure developments in South Africa, like the new King Shaka Airport outside Durban, will clearly benefit the future of tourism growth in South Africa, other developments, such as the new and renovated stadiums across the country, will have to prove their investment return over time.
"The transport infrastructure is an integral part to move the people of this country and to move people into this country," said Monhla Hlahla, managing director of Airports Company South Africa, which operates the country's major airports.
For example, King Shaka Airport, a $1 billion facility that opened earlier this month, is triple the size of the Durban Airport it replaced. It has the capacity to handle 7.5 million passengers annually, compared with 4.4 million at the old airport. And its 2.3-mile runway replaced a 1.5-mile runway. As a result, it can now accommodate the world's largest aircraft, including the double-decker Airbus A380.
"For us, the World Cup is an event in the middle of our infrastructure cycle," Hlahla said. "We're a growing economy. Even without the World Cup, we would need the expansion within the next 10 years. The infrastructure investment in South Africa today is a base for economic growth."
As for the stadiums, five existing facilities underwent major renovations for 2010: Soccer City and Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg and Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein. The Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane was rebuilt, and the Kings Park Stadium in Durban (now Moses Mabhida Stadium) and Cape Town's Green Point Stadium were transformed into multi-sport facilities.
Entirely new stadiums were built at Mbombela in Mpumalanga and in Port Elizabeth.
The plan for the majority of the stadiums is to keep them operating as sporting facilities as a way to attract more events.