x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Fan parks will add colour to Rainbow Nation

With the cost of air fares and match tickets still a contentious issue, supporters wishing to watch the matches will be able to enjoy the World Cup experience.

A bicycle rider performs tricks outside the Mbombela Stadium, in Nelspruit, South Africa. A fan park will open nearby for fans who do not have tickets to matches to watch games.
A bicycle rider performs tricks outside the Mbombela Stadium, in Nelspruit, South Africa. A fan park will open nearby for fans who do not have tickets to matches to watch games.

A fleet of gleaming new high-speed trains stand ready and waiting at Johannesburg's OR Tambo International airport to whisk passengers to Sandton, in the city centre. The Gautrain, named after the Gauteng province, is perhaps the most visible sign of South Africa's efforts to give World Cup visitors a pleasant experience. For decades, transport from the airport to Sandton has been the preserve of taxis and buses, the former expensive and the latter slow. A trip on the Gautrain will be quick - about 15 minutes - and cheap.

The project, which cost more than ZAR25 billion (Dh12.15bn), was accelerated to ensure it will open in time for the tournament - just barely. It is due to start operations three days before kick-off. Once they reach the city centre, visitors will find parks with giant-screen televisions, designed to hold 20,000 people and give fans without tickets the experience of watching games surrounded by a passionate crowd.

There will be fan parks in all cities that are hosting games, and other towns, too. They expect to attract visitors and locals, and will offer food and drink, including alcohol, for sale. Organisers expect to sell between eight and 10 million beers at the fan parks over the course of the event. The parks will be an opportunity for visitors to experience the Rainbow Nation at its most unified. Apartheid was consigned to history more than a decade ago, but its socio-economic legacy remains and many South Africans still socialise largely with members of their own races.

That all changes at sporting events, though, and if the scenes at past rugby World Cups are anything to go by, blacks, whites and Indians will all be celebrating or commiserating together, an emotional melting-pot that compares to little else anywhere in the world. In Cape Town, the park will be set up at the Grand Parade, a large square close to the city centre and bordered on one side by the centuries-old Castle of Good Hope. Johannesburg will have a fan park at Mary Fitzgerald Square; another in Sandton, which has many large hotels and where many visitors will be based; and one in Soweto, likely to be the most African of all.

Around the stadiums, the atmosphere is likely to be rather more international. Under Fifa's rules the area will be reserved for its sponsors - a cooling tower next to Soccer City, where the opening and final matches will be held, has already been repainted with a Coca-Cola bottle - and independent businesses, such as street vendors, will not get a look-in, being swiftly moved on by the authorities.

The situation has provoked resentment in some quarters, with one newspaper headline a few weeks ago proclaiming: "Welcome to the Republic of Fifa." How many people will come for the tournament remains a topic of speculation. Initial estimates of 450,000 visitors have been scaled back to between 220,000 and 373,000, as travellers were put off by high prices for air tickets and hotels in the face of the global financial crisis.

Few companies have added extra capacity. Delta, one of two airlines operating direct flights from the USA, where the most tickets have been sold overseas, is only adding 17 extra flights to its schedule during the contest. Discounted tickets sold out long ago and it now costs thousands of dollars to get to and from the country. Domestically, South African Airways (SAA), the country's main airline, says demand is high and it will operate a 24-hour schedule if necessary, but it has not needed to lease extra aircraft. For months SAA was accused of price-gouging as cheap tickets were no longer available but, at the beginning of April, Match, Fifa's official hospitality partner, released back to it 45,000 tickets that it had block-reserved.

"There was an outcry that there are no seats on SAA flights," acknowledged Fani Zulu, Match's spokesman. "The reality is the cheap ones were no longer available." Now, though, it has seats "at competitive prices and they are selling very fast". They are unlikely to last, and many visitors will in any case have already made plans to travel overland instead, driving vast distances to do so - it is more than 1,750 kilometres from Cape Town to Durban.

Similarly, having originally booked 1.7 million bed nights at hotels across the country - some of them not even in towns where matches were taking place - Match returned more than one million of them back to the operators concerned because of lack of demand, leaving those outside the main centres scrambling to fill them at the last minute. Plans for a tent city in Johannesburg to accommodate the anticipated overspill - which could potentially have been chilly in the depths of winter at 1,700m altitude - have gone by the wayside.

To some extent the reports of high prices have acted as a self-denying prophecy, but those who do go to South Africa will find one of the best tourist experiences on the continent. The rest of the country has some of the most renowned attractions in the world, from the sprawling Kruger National Park - when the tournament is over the dry season will be in full effect, reducing the amount of greenery on the vegetation and forcing wildlife to congregate around water sources, making it one of the best times of year to go - to the Cape winelands, home to fine restaurants and stunning scenery.