Sport has a rich history in Africa, ranging from chariot racing in ancient Egypt to Bambara wrestling in Mali, to the pirogue-racing contests of the Great Lakes. Modern South Africa is no different. Rugby, cricket and football have all developed passionate followings in the country, which in turn has fostered immense commercial opportunities. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fervour that greeted the country’s hosting of the 2010 FIFA Football World Cup, the first time the tournament has been held on the continent.

However, the huge investments and disappointing returns from the 2010 World Cup have provoked extensive debate as to the potential of capital-intensive sports tourism in the country, particularly given the pressing demands for public spending and urban planning. This has been highlighted by the protracted discussions of logistics for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

WAKA WAKA METRICS: For events like the 2010 World Cup, one of the few quantifiable methods for gauging the ability of sporting events to boost the economy is foreign tourism arrivals – particularly whether the investments in promotion and infrastructure translate to a statistically significant jump in visitors.

According to figures from South Africa Tourism (SAT), the country saw a 15% increase in arrivals in the year leading up to 2010. While in 2011, despite a worldwide slowdown in international travel, the country achieved a further increase of around 3.3%. While it is difficult to measure precisely how much of that can be attributed to the event itself, according to the results of a survey by the National Department of Tourism (NDT) and SAT on the impact of the World Cup, total awareness of South Africa as a leisure destination increased by 9% following the World Cup.

TWO SIDES: Proponents of the tournament point to the fact that a large proportion of related infrastructure spend was desperately needed independent of the tournament, and that the legacy of the World Cup can be seen in the improved transport infrastructure and reduced circulation times in major urban areas.

However, critics have countered that the majority of the transportation projects were passenger-centric, coming at the expense of critically needed upgrades in freight logistics capacity that would have offered a far greater multiplier effect. Even more prominent have been the accusations of the tournament infrastructure falling victim to “white elephant” syndrome, with expensive new facilities underutilised following the tournament. New and expanded airports are still operating far under capacity, while the hotels built in advance of the tournament have subsequently struggled to cope with low occupancy levels.

CAN DO BETTER: The two sides will have the opportunity to hone their arguments over the benefits and drawbacks of sports tourism and tournament hosting yet again in 2013. In the second half of 2011, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced that due to civil unrest in the scheduled host nation of Libya, South Africa had been selected as a substitute host for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN). The announcement served as a testament to the country’s readiness to host major sporting events at short notice, bringing along the concomitant benefits of filling stadia, boosting arrival numbers and stimulating further tourism revenues during the month-long tournament.

WEIGHING THE ADVANTAGES: However, concerns over the cost-benefit ratio following the unexpectedly modest performance of the 2010 World Cup have once again come to the fore. South Africa’s sports and recreation minister, Fikele Mbalula, has assured the public that the government would work to make sure that CAN has concrete benefits for the country.

While exact costs have yet to be announced, the central government has also sought to reassure potential host cities that it would help them bear the costs, setting up a joint task team with a mandate to reduce the financial burden – and, hopefully, generate profits. However, for such events to be hosted on a regular basis, the country must approach necessary infrastructure expansions in a more targeted and focused manner.