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Fewer visitors dent World Cup hotel hopes

The corrugated metal and wood building, tucked between Khayelitsha's shacks and downtrodden sandy streets, advertises itself as "South Africa's smallest hotel".

It's a far cry from the plush five-stars that line Cape Town's seafront under Table Mountain, but the small, six-bedroomed guesthouse is booked out in the first leg of the World Cup, which starts on June 11.


The 2010 FIFA World Cup mascotte, Zakumi, poses on stage after the unveiling of the FIFA world cup trophy. AFP

"The first two weeks I'm full," said Vicky Ntozini, 37, of Vicky's B'nB whose tournament beds cost 300 rands (40 dollars, 30 euros) per person.

Ntozini is one of the lucky ones: initial fears of a World Cup accommodation shortage have now swung to worries of empty beds outside the main cities, with 30 days to kick-off. Less than 400,000 foreigners are now expected in South Africa for the June 11 to July 11 showcase, British firm Grant Thornton said last month in a downward revision of the 483,000 arrivals it forecast two years ago.

Football body FIFA's hospitality partner MATCH has reportedly shed half of its original stockpile of rooms. The latest batch were returned last month, leading to a scramble to fill unsold beds weeks ahead of the tournament.

"What we are seeing is that obviously it is not what we had expected it to be," said Brett Dungan, CEO of the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa.

"By all accounts this is going to be a last minute World Cup. We have no idea of what is going to happen. It is disappointing for everyone but it's not over. Now we're into the next stage of selling." Sluggish World Cup bookings have been blamed on the global recession, high ticket and bed prices, and Iceland's volcanic ash-cloud - alongside crime fears, tedious online booking systems, and the country's long-haul location.

FIFA's partner MATCH, which reportedly secured some 1.8 million bed nights, would not disclose figures. But it shrugged off criticism of pricing itself out of the reach of average football fans.

"Contrary to what is said about pricing, MATCH is responsible for working with the hotel chains to keep the prices down," said Vivienne Bervoets, senior accommodation manager.

Online sales on FIFA.com had been "brisk", she told AFP, citing strong sales in Johannesburg which hosts the opening and final matches with several other match cities in easy driving distance. But demand elsewhere was lower.

"MATCH is satisfied with the level of bookings made via FIFA.com which was set up to facilitate quick and easy sales to the general public.

Demand via other sales channels has been less than expected in some cases." One sector selling well is online portal SafariNow.com which said it has booked thousands of tournament beds ranging from 500 to 5,000 rands and fielded enquiries from around the world.

"Our bookings have been better than expected. Business has been better than normal and we have seen a sharp rise in our numbers, so have our competitors," general manager Dylan Rothschild told AFP.

Likely World Cup losers are guesthouses in South Africa's townships, poor neglected areas like Khayelitsha where blacks were forced to live under white minority rule. "People are complaining," said Ntozini, who is part of an association of 23 B'nBs in three townships. "Our expectations were very high, so we thought that maybe by now we'd be splitting our clients. But so far it's not like that."

Staying in townships would show World Cup visitors a different side to South Africa, she said.

"There's a big difference between a bed and breadkfast in the township and a hotel in town. At a hotel, you're just a number. Here you are part of our family," she said, citing donkey cart cruises and home-cooked meals.

"If they want to experience real South African life, the townships are the best place to be."

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