From wildlife to wine, breaching sharks to breast implants, one of the main attractions of South Africa’s first World Cup will be the country itself and the travel possibilities it offers.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to converge on South Africa in June and July, a projection that has spurred government officials, tour operators and service providers to a frenzy of activity.
“It’s all systems go and we are ready for the world,” South African Minister of Sport and Recreation Makhenkesi Stofile told reporters this month.
The welcome will include a slate of extra-curricular activities that goes far beyond the football pitch, starting with the country’s world-famous wildlife.
South Africa’s most famous safari destination, Kruger National Park, gives visitors a chance to come face-to-face with Africa’s big five game: lion, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard and Cape buffalo.
Rooms at Kruger often sell out a year in advance, but the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has reserved space at one of the park’s 22 camps for June and July.
The rooms are available through FIFA’s Web site, though would-be game watchers should book fast.
“That is our high season,” Kruger spokesman William Mabasa said. “When we opened for bookings in July last year, within two hours the park was fully booked.”
Those who don’t score a room at Kruger can still enter the park on a day pass. Mabasa said each of Kruger’s 10 gates allows between 300 and 750 visitors per day.
The private game reserves adjoining Kruger can also put visitors in close contact with the animals.
Unlike at national parks, game rangers at private reserves can lead safaris in open-air vehicles and drive off-road to follow the wildlife.
Some private reserves also have high-end package deals that include match tickets and luxury accommodation.
For example, one tour operator, Rhino Africa Safaris, offers a nine-day package that includes tickets to the World Cup finals and four days at Londolozi Private Game Reserve for US$17,000.
Underwater wildlife is also one of the region’s major draws.
South Africa and neighboring Mozambique are both home to several scuba-diving destinations that are consistently ranked among the best dive sites in the world.
Travellers who don’t have scuba certification but do have a healthy appetite for adventure can try shark cage diving, which involves sitting in a submerged metal cage as crew members lure great white sharks to approach.
Those who prefer to keep a little distance can try a shark breaching tour.
These sea-going excursions seek out great whites as they breach the surface of the water while hunting seals, leaping up to 7m in the air.
More interested in people than animals? Visitors can also get a glimpse of daily life in a South African family by booking a homestay instead of a hotel.
Mbombela municipality, whose Mbombela Stadium will host four first-round matches, has compiled a database of hosts who want to open their houses to guests.
“We are of the opinion that people would want to experience Africa,” said Joseph Ngala, spokesman for the municipality.
“They’ve been to the best hotels all over the world and what they don’t have is an experience in an African hut,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, some South African surgeons are using the World Cup to help boost the country’s reputation as a cost-effective place to have plastic surgery.