Profiteering worrying World Cup organisers

LONDON - Rocketing prices in South Africa are causing major concern among World Cup organisers, who fear profiteering could deter more football fans than alarmist reporting about violent crime.

South African and FIFA officials have angrily condemned what they see as emotional and inaccurate reporting, especially in England and Germany, about the dangers to supporters from some of the world's most violent criminals.

They say an enormous police operation will keep fans safe.

Recently, alarm bells have also started ringing about high prices, which are hitting advance ticket sales.

One of the most undesirable consequences is that Africa's first World Cup, a huge event for the continent, is likely to be seen by only a trickle of visitors from other African nations.

"I am very angry. It would cost me almost three months' pay to follow Nigeria around if you add hotels and travel," said Lagos-based investment banker Fola Fagbule.

"It's really ridiculous...Tell them they can keep their tickets, I've got a big-screen TV."

FIFA officials said last week two-thirds of the three million tickets for the football extravaganza had been sold and they were delighted by a surge in demand after the draw in December, but a lack of flights, their cost and negative reporting about security were having an impact.

FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke said flying from Europe "costs a fortune," partly because there were not enough flights.

There is also a concern about internal air travel where some prices have trebled during the month of the World Cup, starting on June 11.

Accommodation prices have increased even more, by three, four or even 10-fold for some luxury digs.

South Africa's competition watchdog says it is investigating six local airlines for alleged price-fixing during the World Cup, the globe's most-watched sports event.

INFLATED RATES

The prices are causing real anger, even though it is generally acknowledged that South Africa, as a long-haul destination, was never going to attract the same rush for tickets as Germany in 2006.

"Why the huge price increase? Easy, it boils down to one word, a word that hotels, bars and taxis are using more and more as the tournament rolls into town - greed," one South African said in a comment on the website of Britain's Daily Mail.

Peter Stephens, managing director of the British travel agents DialAFlight said this week: "No wonder so many fans have been put off heading to South Africa. The hoteliers and local airlines in the areas where the games are being played have inflated their rates by between 50 and 100 percent."

He said fans who had already paid high prices to get to South Africa "now face the grim prospect of paying massively inflated prices for internal flights...to follow their team's progress. Hoteliers and flight operators seem oblivious to the fact we are still in a worldwide recession."

Sugen Pillay, global events manager for South African Tourism, told Reuters authorities were very concerned about "ridiculously" high prices because they wanted the World Cup to lure visitors back for future holidays.

"Our main concern is if people don't have a value-for-money experience they are not going to come back to South Africa... the formal industry understands that but people who want to make quick money don't understand that and quite frankly they don't even care about it," he said.

Pillay said price increases by graded hotels and those contracted by FIFA's travel arm MATCH were reasonable but the government had no control over other operators, who saw the event as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a fortune.

UNSOLD TICKETS

Ticket sales are particularly low in Germany, home of one of the biggest fan bases, where crime-scare stories and high costs appear to have had a big impact.

The German football federation said ticket uptake was similar to 2002 when the tournament was held in another long-haul location for German fans - South Korea and Japan.

Foreign demand for tickets has come primarily from the United States, with England in second place, yet still thousands of seats for the first round remain unsold.

"We assumed costs would be high but what I've heard about the costs specifically are ridiculous," said Guy Pascoe, a market researcher based in London.

Danny Jordaan, chief South African organiser of the tournament, has expressed concern about apathy in Africa, amid fears that more rich South Africans than poor from the country's main football base will attend games.

Tickets will be available over the counter from April after organisers belatedly acknowledged that internet or bank-based sales points were not appropriate for this group.

That will not bring in fans from other African countries, however.

"Going to South Africa to see the World Cup is for the rich," said shopkeeper Georges Akpa in Ivory Coast, which will have one of the strongest of six African teams in the finals.

"I don't even dream of going to South Africa. I'm going to watch the matches on TV," he said at his Abidjan shop.

"It's such a shame that so many Ivorians won't be able to take part in the first celebration of football on the African continent," said maths teacher Julien Oka in an Abidjan bar.