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World Cup Kicks Image Up a Notch

JOHANNESBURG - The highlight of a tourist outing to Lesedi Cultural Village, a popular attraction about an hour's drive from South Africa's largest city, is a tribal performance that spotlights the ethnic diversity of a post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation."

But this year, Zulu war stomps and Pedi rain incantations are playing second string to the fancy footwork of a "diski" dance (slang for soccer) and a demonstration of the vuvuzela, an ear-piercing trumpet favored by South African soccer buffs.

From Lesedi's expanded lineup to "2010 Bring it on!" billboards in the township of Soweto, South Africa has its eye on the goal for the world's biggest sporting event. For Johannesburg, Cape Town and seven other cities June 11-July 11, the continent's first FIFA World Cup is seen as a coming-out party: a chance to showcase spectacular scenery and wildlife and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela's all-inclusive spirit to an anticipated 450,000 foreign fans. They include Americans, who have bought more game tickets (about 120,000) than any other nationality except the host.

Yet even as a shopping mall countdown clock in the tony suburb of Sandton ticks off the days to Johannesburg's opening ceremony and workers scramble to put the finishing touches on its gourd-shaped stadium, doubts persist about whether the World Cup will lure sports aficionados eager to experience a "bucket list"-worthy destination or keep them home over crime fears and inflated prices.

Beyond 2010

Despite its dangerous reputation - including an urban fortress mentality marked by high walls and electrified fences and a murder rate about 10 times higher than the USA's - South Africa says World Cup visitors will be welcome and safe.

The government has spent more than $170 million to beef up security, including hiring more than 40,000 additional officers. And World Cup officials have denounced a London-based company's plans to sell stab-proof vests for the matches as "abominable scare tactics."

Rather than protection from bodily harm, "the big issue is greed," says Calvyn Gilfellan of Cape Town Routes Unlimited, which markets the country's most popular tourist city and surrounding Western Cape province.

Western Cape promoters hope the residual glow of global publicity will generate nearly 300,000 extra visitors in the five years after the tournament, and they have been pitching a "Beyond the 90 Minutes" campaign to show off the region's world-class vineyards and rugged coastlines that rival California's Big Sur and Italy's Amalfi Drive. The "Mother City" of Cape Town, whose oceanfront setting has been acclaimed as one of the most winsome on the planet, has enhanced such marquee draws as a cable car ride up cloud-draped Table Mountain and a stroll along the Victoria&Alfred Waterfront with an upgraded transportation system and an expanded crop of upscale hotels and restaurants.

In Soweto, site of the 1976 anti-apartheid uprising and close to the 94,700-seat Soccer City stadium, several B&Bs have opened near Mandela's former home-turned-museum on Vilakazi Street, where an $8 million gentrification project encourages visitors to get out of their tour buses. In Durban, South Africa's third-largest city, World Cup fans can take a cable car ride above the new stadium for views of the Indian Ocean and a spruced-up beachfront. And Nels pruit, host to four matches, is gateway to one of Africa's best safari destinations, Kruger National Park.

Economic concerns

But last month, a government commission launched an inquiry into suspected World Cup price-fixing by several airlines. Many accommodations near match sites are doubling or tripling their peak-season rates (because South Africa's seasons are the reverse of the Northern Hemisphere's, the World Cup takes place during what is usually a slow period). Adding to the country's tourism jitters: a lingering global recession and a robust local currency, the rand.

Among the World Cup fence sitters is Arlington, Mass., soccer fan Evan Whitney. Though he already has scored online tickets to all three U.S. opening-round games in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Rustenberg and had hoped to extend his visit with a drive into the waterfall-studded Drakensburg Mountains, steep prices and difficult logistics could keep him tethered to a TV screen instead.

"I'd still love to go," says Whitney, who attended the World Cup in Germany four years ago. "It's a remarkable country, and it would be a great adventure. But at this point, it's still a big question mark."

Travel marketers such as Gilfellan, meanwhile, are keeping their game faces on - and their fingers crossed that South Africa's 10 temples to the planet's most popular sport won't turn out to be white elephants.

"All of Africa is looking to us, and I want my children to be able to say their father was part of this historic moment," Gilfellan says. "But a party is only a party if the invited guests show up."

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