Over the last six months or so, I have travelled three-quarters of the way down through Africa – Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – and everywhere I went I have been greeted by banner ads and World Cup fever. Africans love football and someone has had the bright idea of selling the 2010 World Cup – the first ever held on the continent – as the African World Cup. They are all enormously proud of the fact and have been hyped up into near hysteria for months.
More importantly however, places as far north as Tanzania are expecting a tourism boom and are gearing up for the flood of tourists and a massive cash injection that simply isn’t going to happen. Everyone is creating huge numbers of World Cup souvenirs from t-shirts and footballs to horn earrings and massive stone sculptures that are often gloriously imaginative but are probably doomed to be left unsold. Over-inflated hotel beds will be left empty. People on the street are even talking about the World Cup solving the currency crisis in Zimbabwe. In poor countries that are desperate for a miracle, the expectations are simply too high. When people find themselves out of pocket, there is a real danger of a backlash of bitter disappointment.
Even in South Africa, FIFA has released hundreds of thousands of hotel beds, numbers are considerably down on the initial projections and prices are tumbling as people scramble towards more realistic deals. Hopefully if the big European countries make it through to the final rounds, there will be a late rush for tickets but even so, relatively few are likely to stray far beyond South Africa, other than the odd quick overnight to Victoria Falls or the Mozambique coast.
Africa is dear to my heart. Tourism isn’t a luxury here, but a necessity that helps people survive at the most basic level. To give people unrealistic dreams is cruel and unfair and while it is probably too late to set the record straight, people should be told that the World Cup is, after all, just a football tournament. Enjoy it, celebrate it, but don’t count on it to change your world. It won’t.