Anyone hoping to attend the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament in South Africa next summer needs to face the facts: It's not going to be easy.
When the U.S. national soccer team's victory over Honduras on Oct. 10 officially qualified it to be one of the 32 teams in the tournament, the draw for American soccer fans was solidified.
But though U.S. travelers might now know for sure that they want to go to South Africa, they won't know where or when the U.S. team will play its first games until the official draw on Dec. 4. By then, it could be too late to book air and accommodations to the right one of nine South African cities that will be hosting matches.
Nor is that making life very easy for official World Cup tour operators.
"With the USA national team qualifying, and the draw coming up Dec. 4, we anticipate demand to outweigh our resources," Daniel Gamba, sales and marketing program manager for Cartan Tours, one of the official World Cup tour operators, wrote in an email. "Accommodations will sell out quickly. Anyone who books before the draw will get the best choices for accommodations, quality, pricing and locations. After the draw, options and availability will be extremely limited."
Admittedly, said Terry von Guilleaume, CEO of Destination Southern Africa, another official World Cup tour operator, "it's a major Catch-22 for the consumer. If they wait until Dec. 4 to plan their World Cup trip, they're screwed. That is when everyone in the world, on that day, is going to try to book their hotel rooms. Already, 70% of hotels are sold out."
Cartan Tours of Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Destination Southern Africa of Tucson, Ariz.; and Great Atlantic Travel of Virginia Beach, Va., are the three U.S.-based tour operators that are part of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Tour Operator Program, a group of operators chosen by FIFA, the international soccer governing body, to package air, hotel and domestic transportation around match tickets the association allocated to them.
Von Guilleaume estimated that more than 100 tour operators applied to be in the program, and up to six tour operators per country were selected.
"Why did they only pick three [for the U.S.]? It may come down to the costs," said von Guilleaume. "The operators here in the States had to pay a premium on the tickets they were offered by FIFA. You also had to prove you had sufficient accommodations in South Africa." Operators had to show FIFA they had enough air and room blocks to support the number of match tickets they requested.
Destination Southern Africa paid an additional 20% licensing fee on top of the face value of match tickets, but the most challenging aspect was booking enough rooms for the event, said von Guilleaume.
"South Africa is short 30% to accommodate all the visitors for the World Cup," he said. "The demand is just that high."
Large investments up front
The investment for tour operators was significant. The tickets were paid for up front, and suppliers were either paid in full or with a large deposit to secure reservations. For hotels, operators often had to book for the duration of the World Cup, taking place from June 11 to July 11.
On top of that, pricing during the World Cup has been significantly inflated, with airfare and hotel rooms costing 150% to 200% more than they did as recently as June and July, according to several sources.
Von Guilleaume and others are concerned, however, that even if fans are willing to pay, there simply aren't going to be enough flights, either on South Africa Airways or with other carriers, such as Delta. Nor, they fear, will there be enough hotel rooms to accommodate them.
Beyond the complications of traveling to South Africa, actually getting to the matches once in the country could pose another challenge. Nine cities are hosting matches, with the majority of matches scheduled to take place in two stadiums in Johannesburg, including at Soccer City, a stadium being reconstructed to hold 94,700 spectators.
A major problem arises if someone books a stay in Johannesburg but the team they actually want to see ends up playing in Cape Town.
"Out of the nine cities, the ones that actually have hotel rooms of any volume are Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town," said John Martin, owner of Great Atlantic Travel. "We can move people around the country from those three cities to put the people in the cities near where the matches are." But, he added, "the logistics are very difficult."
Airlines in South Africa are said to be increasing capacity during the tournament to help move people between match locations, and Great Atlantic Travel said it would provide ground transfers between venues that are within driving distance.
For those who want to see later matches, from the round of 16 to the finals, there's no telling who will be playing until days before the matches. Thus, people have to either chance it, make their bookings earlier and then watch whomever makes it that far, whether it's the team they're rooting for or not, or try to make last-minute arrangements, which could be extremely difficult and costly, if not impossible.
Another option, if someone wanted to go all the way and take a chance on following a particular team to the finals, is a 30-day package, including tickets to three first-round matches, a round of 16, a quarterfinal, a semifinal and the final, including air from New York, ground transfers and hotels. The cost of that package will run about $23,500 per person through Great Atlantic Travel.