Six years and $4 billion after it won the right to host this year’s World Cup, the first match kicks off tomorrow in South Africa. Soccer fans everywhere are going to be watching. Locals will be holding their breath, hoping that all the investment in new airports and stadiums is going to pay off. Tens of thousands of tourists will show up and shell out for hotels, food and souvenirs. But not all the expectations for the World Cup’s big payoff are going to be met.
By Christopher Werth
Marcel Mpiani takes pride in showing off his new guesthouse. Although it’s located in a rather rundown neighborhood, it’s directly across the street from Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, where many of the matches will be played.
“We’ve got six rooms, and the lounge there, the TV, and then the kitchen,” Mpiani said. “Each and every room, we’ve got a toilet…”
Opening a guesthouse here was a bit of a gamble. When they bought the place last year, it was just an abandoned buildings in an impoverished part of the city. But with the World Cup taking place right at their doorstep, Mpiani decided to invest about $40,000 into gutting the building and putting in new walls and floors in time to greet tourists. On our tour, Mpiani shows me the dining area.
When I asked him what was on the menu, he said it depends on which guests he would be getting to stay there.
“If they are maybe from Germany, we’ve got the menu for them,” Mpiana said. “If they are from United States of America, we know the menu for; if they are African, we are ready to give all the food.”
The only the thing missing now is the guests. Mpiani doesn’t have a single booking for the month-long event. The global recession could have something to do with that. The projected number of people attending the World Cup has been reduced by about 25 percent because of the economic slow down.
But Lael Bethlehem says there’s another reason the lodge is empty.
“People have a somewhat unrealistic view of what the World Cup will bring,” Bethlehem said.
Bethlehem is with the Johannesburg Development Agency, which is in charge of rejuvenating neighborhoods like this. She says over the past couple of years, she’s seen guesthouses like Mpiani’s pop up all over the inner city, with many hoping to cater to wealthy foreigners during the World Cup.
“So a person might establish a guest house imagining that a lot of Japanese and German and Brazilian tourists are going to stay there, and that it will be enormously profitable,” she said. “Actually, the World Cup is four weeks. So if they built a business model around the World Cup, it will fail.”
For small-time entrepreneurs across the city, the World Cup isn’t turning out to be the opportunity they thought it would be.
A few miles away in Alexandra Township, street traders have their wares laid out on blankets on the street selling everything from popcorn to souvenir flags for the World Cup.
Thabo Mopasi is a member of the local chamber of commerce. He says peddlers like these hope to cater to World Cup visitors, but the games’ organizer, FIFA, has barred street traders from selling in areas around the stadiums, in favor of its official sponsors.
“I think it’s going to be a serious nightmare,” Mopasi said. “The people, I think, they will be saying the event never benefited them.”
Mopasi says political leaders should have been much more clear about just who would benefit from the World Cup, and who would be left on the sidelines.
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