The football world's seven regional champions this month are coming to South Africa for the Confederations Cup, often called the mini-World Cup.  The two weeks of top-level soccer matches are seen as a test run for next year's World Cup and preparations in South Africa are in high gear.

A group of Sotho women in traditional blue dresses sang and danced during southern Africa's premier tourism convention recently in the southeastern city of Durban.

Football fever

Football fever is gripping South Africa as it prepares to host the Confederations Cup beginning June 14.   The country is hosting the national teams of Italy, Spain, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, New Zealand, and the United States.

The head of the local organizing committee, Danny Jordaan says that although this tournament of eight national teams is relatively small, organizing it is complex.  But he said he is confident South Africa would be ready.

"We have the buses, the trains, the planes.  We have the levels of security required for the event.  We have taken care of volunteers and their training.  We are selling the tickets.  We have dealt with border controls and visas.  We have looked at the teams, where they train and where they will be accommodated and all the other arrangements," he said.

Tourism boost

Hotels, tour operators, lodges and game reserves are vying for some of the millions of dollars that football fans will spend during the tournament.

Organizers see the Confederations Cup as a trial-run for next year's football World Cup, the first to be held in Africa.

Ten stadiums are being built or refurbished for the event  that is expected to draw 400,000 fans, create thousands of jobs and generate business worth $2 billion.

More than just football

The editor of one of southern Africa's leading travel periodicals, Don Pinnock of Getaway Magazine, says South Africa has more to offer visitors than just football.  He notes that it is a major tourism destination, despite concerns over safety and a high crime rate.

"It is a beautiful country to travel in.  I think the ease of travel and the variation of the many terrains in this country and the availability of accommodation kind of outweigh the fear," he said.

The South African government is spending several-billion dollars upgrading airports, railways and major roads.  It is also developing rapid-transit systems to deliver fans to the stadiums around the country.  And the hotel industry is building or remodeling thousands of rooms for the event.

Cashing in

Other southern African nations are also hoping to cash in on the football fever. Nearly a dozen of them, from Mauritius to Namibia, brought large display stands to the convention.

An official with Zimbabwe's Tourism Authority, Ndaipaneyi Mukwena, says her country has world-class attractions that are just a short flight from South Africa.

"Being next door, having world natural resources, we are saying why just come for the soccer?  Come and see the Victoria Falls.  Why are you not coming to see the Great Zimbabwe, the history of the people?  Why are you not coming for your safari, for your adventure?  We are just one-and-one-half hours from any corner of South Africa," she said.

She acknowledges Zimbabwe has experienced political and economic problems in recent years, but says these are easing and most travel warnings have been lifted.

Charity aspect

Humanitarian groups are also getting involved.  British travel agent John Haycock has founded Footballs for Fun.  Travelers can buy special balls made in South Africa to give to needy children.

"It seemed a nice idea to get footballs to the kids of Africa, so that they in turn felt that they got some benefit from the fact that this huge tournament was coming to South Africa," he said.

Lodges, agents and other tourism operators have bought hundreds of balls to use as promotional items.

Haycock says even if the donor decides to keep the ball as a souvenir, proceeds from the sale help purchase more balls, which are distributed through churches and civic groups. 

Some criticism

Critics worry that after the Cup the new stadiums and hotels may be hard to fill and some could fail.  But travel editor Pinnock notes that nine million tourists came to South Africa last year.

"South Africa maintains a high level of tourist friendliness.  We will get a dip after the World Cup, but I think we will pick up slowly after that, as long as we maintain a stable political and economic situation here.  The rest of the country does it for you," he noted.

Most South Africans are not concerned about post-World Cup worries.  Right now, they are excited about the world-class football ahead and, 15 years after the end of apartheid, the opportunity to showcase their emerging nation.