FIFA plans marathon trips for World Cup fans

JOHANNESBURG - Fans could face 17-hour round trips to see one match at the World Cup next year under a plan aimed at overcoming accommodation problems while combining football with safari and beach holidays.

Ironically, the longest journeys may be reserved for the richest fans.

Football's ruling body FIFA has identified accommodation as one of the major challenges before the tournament kicks off in South Africa next June.

Although officials from organising committee boss Danny Jordaan down say the accommodation problem will be fixed - currently there is a shortfall of 15,000 rooms - hotel space is under heavy pressure in some places.

Prices for hotels and guest houses in the smaller venues have already rocketed by up to five times normal rates for the month-long World Cup starting on June 11.

MATCH Services, the travel agent appointed by FIFA, has told some big news organisations that the nearest official hotel available is up to 60 km from the stadium in at least one venue because other places have been taken by preferred clients such as teams, officials, sponsors and media partners.

MATCH says the main object of the accommodation scheme is to give fans the option of early secured bookings and flexibility to switch locations after the draw in December, as well as the chance to enjoy time on safari or at the beach between games.

However, shortages of accommodation are also clearly a significant reason for the plan, under which so-called MATCH Villes will be located in areas of South Africa with more stocks of hotel rooms as well as in Mauritius, a four-hour flight from Johannesburg.

Tourists using the scheme will be required to arrive between four and seven hours before a game and will be held in the stadium for two or more hours after the final whistle.

LUXURY HOLIDAY

Mauritius, a luxury destination in the Indian Ocean off Africa's east coast, will have 3,200 rooms available for clients of the MATCH Ville programme.

In total, MATCH expects to sell more than 21,000 rooms in the scheme's centres, from where fans will be flown to matches in smaller venues.

Jordaan said there would be a class of World Cup fans who would want to combine watching the tournament with a luxury holiday.

"I think there are two different constituent groups even among the fans.

"There are those who would only want to stay in a five-star hotel and if they cannot find it in South Africa maybe they would rather live in a five-star hotel in Mauritius, where it is a wonderful summer, and travel on a plane because they would have means to do so," he told Reuters.

"Poorer fans will stay as close as possible to the event location," he added, saying authorities would launch "fan embassies" to help supporters find rooms.

"Each constituent group will have to be provided with an accommodation-transport solution which will fit their ability to pay."

Vivienne Bervoets, a senior accommodation manager at MATCH, told Reuters the scheme would give flexibility to fans who wanted to secure their flights and accommodation now, before the qualifying teams and location of the matches were finalised.

The full line-up for the tournament will not be known until qualification is complete in November and the draw takes place in Cape Town on December 4.

"These factors make it extremely difficult to commit to accommodation and transport right now and yet fans want to secure these services. MATCH Ville is the perfect solution," she said.

PRICE INFLATION

The scheme will guarantee transport and accommodation for the fans' chosen matches regardless of where they are played. Payments are refundable if the fans' team do not qualify.

Bervoets said if fans waited until after the draw, they could have problems getting accommodation where they wanted.

She defended the choice of Mauritius, saying there had been substantial interest from travel agents.

"Packages are in modules that include five nights and a ticket to one match and therefore it is important that MATCH Villes are located in areas that will be attractive to international visitors and offer a number of leisure activities on non match days," she said.

The World Cup is already causing huge price inflation in areas, with some hoteliers and apartment owners seeking to cash in on what they see as a unique opportunity.

One hotel contacted by Reuters outside the central city of Bloemfontein, a match venue, increased its prices from 495 rand ($63) to 2,500 rand ($317) in the space of two weeks.

In Rustenburg, one small guesthouse with normal prices around 500 rand has pushed them up to 2,200 rand next June.

Many in South Africa's tourist industry are worried that profiteering will rob the country of the big boost to future tourism that is expected from the World Cup.

"We want people to come back on holiday after the World Cup and they won't do that if prices are pushed up too high," said Port Elizabeth tour guide Shirley Naude.