Among the issues to repeatedly arise in the interview about South Africa with the British researcher Marc Fletcher that appeared in this column last year was a conflicting duality of local and global perspectives and interests. Now, with just 73 days to go until the opening game between the host nation and Mexico kicks off on 11 June, this same conflict is being drawn into harsher focus as reports circulate the world about the prospect of empty seats at the majority of World Cup matches this summer. According to the Daily Mirror and a number of other online sources, some 650,000 match tickets of the 2.95 million put on sale in total are still yet to be snapped up.
Having attracted much criticism domestically for their decision to prioritise income from overseas visitors over a larger allocation to South African residents, the organisers will be particularly disturbed by the suggestion that over half of the unsold tickets – around 330,000 – have been returned from among the 570,000 originally distributed to the 31 other competing nations. Airlines and tour operators the world over had predictably hoped to cash in during the months of June and July as well, but limited flight availability and extortionate prices are being cited amongst the key factors behind the refusal of many international fans to travel. Six South African airlines have been investigated for allegedly colluding to hike their fares on domestic routes. One can only hope that a sensible conclusion will be reached to allow all available tickets to be purchased locally at fair prices, thus bringing a silver lining to this issue and enabling everyone to get on with looking forward to the show.
Meanwhile, not even the minutiae of making travel plans in this supposedly evermore globalising world are immune to the quirks of different national habits. A perusal of the main Japanese travel agents’ websites last week brought up some very attractive fares for flights to Johannesburg – I think the cheapest was 70,000 yen (about £500 today) – until I realised that you actually have to click through about three screens until they tell you what’s actually still available. The ‘limited flight availability and extortionate price’ rumours alluded to above were then promptly confirmed by the literally dozens of times I saw the word ‘FULL’ displayed in red that same evening. In terms of what did have a ‘Purchase’ icon next to it, the best that one site could offer was a whopping 320,000 yen (about £2,300), and while I did manage to bring the figure down to around 250,000 yen (£1,800) elsewhere, this quote was still a fair way out of my price range.
I eventually got lucky with a UK-based travel agent, taking advantage of an exchange rate of 138 yen to the pound that means the latter is worth only two-thirds of what it would be were everything right with the world, and of the fact I would be paying with a Japanese credit card. At least, that was the plan. The payment screen kindly reminded me to ensure my billing information was spelled 100% correctly lest my card be rejected, but while there was space on the page for three lines before the postcode, my address here in Osaka contains five. What’s more, the character limits on the boxes that were there meant I couldn’t just combine two lines into one, and attempting to enter my details in Japanese script was simply a non-starter. After several failed attempts at payment, I blew the dust off my old British debit card and tried to use that, but a recently-introduced ‘Verified by Visa’ system requires prior registration and apparently you can’t do that online if you live overseas. Well that was that, then. I pushed away my mouse and just telephoned the travel agent instead. Things were so much simpler in the 1990s.
Anyway, this is all just a very convoluted way of saying that this column will be reporting from the World Cup in South Africa later in the year. Look out for special features and podcasts from Johannesburg at the beginning of July.