Fares soar as World Cup nears

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PORT ELIZABETH, February 24 – South Africa's World Cup will be played over dizzying distances, but high airfares could complicate fans' travels across a country three times larger than Germany.The southern city of Port Elizabeth, illustrates the problem, lying nearly 700 kilometres (more than 400 miles) from the next closest host city.

That means after South Korea plays its first World Cup match in Port Elizabeth, the team then go 1,000 kilometres away to Johannesburg for its second match — a distance roughly twice the length of South Korea.

South Africa has poured 1.7 billion rand into modernising its railways, while the transport ministry is putting 1,000 extra buses on the roads, but the sheer scale of the country makes air travel essential.

"The flights are quite full during the World Cup, which put up the price, but people still prefer to fly rather than to take the train," said STA travel agent Kristy Leroux.

But domestic carriers are under scrutiny over their prices during the June 11-July 11 tournament, with anti-trust authorities looking into claims of price-fixing.

"Prices are higher, as they would be for any major events, but the airlines have been heavy with the prices," said Michael Tatalias, director of Southern Africa Tourism Services.

The investigation targets British Airways local partner Comair, South African Airways, SA Airlink and SA Express, as well as low-cost carries 1Time and Mango.

The airlines say that their prices are set according to the demand, which soars on game days.

A single ticket on South African from Johannesburg to Cape Town costs 2,560 rands (247 euros, 336 dollars) on June 11 — but just 810 rands for a flight two days earlier.

South African says the increases are needed to offset the costs of expanding its operations during the World Cup, when it will run 24 hours a day and boost flights between the main cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

Other airlines are also increasing their service — Mango plans to boost its capacity by 25 percent. Key airports have received major upgrades to cope with the traffic.

Johannesburg and Cape Town’s international airports have been remodeled to streamline check-ins and smooth immigration lines.

Durban’s new King Shaka airport is set to open in May. Smaller venues are finding other solutions. Port Elizabeth will install a temporary terminal for the World Cup, and has built new roads as well as a hotel.

"We will be adding a temporary terminal in April, to be completed in May. The cost is much lower, so that it doesn’t become a white elephant," said the airport’s manager Azad Cassim.

"We are looking at welcoming 18,000 additional passengers," said Cassim.

In addition to the 450,000 foreigners expected to visit South Africa, many locals will also be looking to travel because schools have declared a special holiday during the World Cup.

Dianne Zimmerman, a pharmaceutical saleswoman with two children in Port Elizabeth, said she’s decided to stay put during the tournament.

"We’re staying in Port Elizabeth during the World Cup because it is too expensive to travel," she said.

Economists fear higher travel costs may prompt others to make a similar decision.

"We will get less visitors since it is too expensive to come here and the global recession means that people won’t spend their money like they would have done two years ago," said economist Mike Schussler.

"People think they’re going to make a lot of money during the World Cup. They look at short term. There’s a feeling among the business owners that they are expecting too much."

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