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2010 World Cup Helped South Africa Attract Latin American Tourists


Now, at the World Cup in Brazil, the stadiums, the hotels, the beaches have been packed. The games have sure been entertaining, nail-biting in many cases. Let's remember, though, before the tournament kicked off, there were a lot of complaints in Brazil about the cost of hosting the cup. Unfortunately, major international sporting events don't pay for themselves. South Africa hosted the last World Cup and spent billions on infrastructure, some of which has been barely used since then. But NPR's Anders Kelto reports that South Africa was not left entirely empty-handed. In fact, it even made some new friends.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: For the 2010 World Cup, Cape Town built a brand new soccer stadium right in the heart of the city. It sort of looks a spaceship. It's round, there's this silver mesh going around the outside and the top is kind of wavy - like a Pringle. I recently went down to the stadium area and bumped into Tayengwa Tsopo, a waiter in a nearby restaurant. He said he walks through this area almost every day.

TAYENGWA TSOPO: It's a very quiet road, actually. You hardly meet people around here.

KELTO: And the stadium? Is there usually, like, a lot of action at the stadium?

TSOPO: When it's on a match day, it's very busy around here, but it's like, as you can see, a white elephant right now.

KELTO: A white elephant - it's expensive, but isn't very useful. The stadium hosts a few soccer matches and a couple of concerts each year. But for the most part, it just sits here, empty. And it costs several million dollars a year to maintain. Stefan Szymanski is an economist at the University of Michigan who studies large sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup.

STEFAN SYZMANSKI: Hosting major events like the World Cup does very little for the national economy.

KELTO: But earlier this year, Szymanski was looking at data from the 2010 World Cup and he noticed something unusual - something he hadn’t expected to see. And he told me where I could find it.

How are you?


KELTO: Can I ask you a question?


KELTO: Where are you guys from?

L. MENDIZABEL: I'm from Guatemala and they're from El Salvador.

KELTO: That's Luis Mendizabel. I met him and his family at Cape Town's waterfront area. It's basically the city's tourist Mecca. There's a port with a shopping mall and outdoor restaurants, even a Ferris wheel. Medizabel said they had come to South Africa to celebrate their granddaughter Isabella's fifteenth birthday - her quincenera.

I'd better talk to the birthday girl. So it was your idea to come here?


KELTO: And when did you start wanting to come to South Africa?

I. MENDIZABEL: My - one of my best friends already, like, came here and she said it was incredible.

KELTO: That friend, and her family, had come for the 2010 World Cup. Isabella said she was surprised to learn that Cape Town is actually a developed modern city.

What did you imagine it like?

I. MENDIZABEL: Small buildings. I don't know - small airport.

KELTO: It turns out that Isabella is part of the strange trend that Stefan Syzmanski, the sports economist, had noticed. The number of Latin Americans visiting South Africa is now more than double what it was before the World Cup - about 120,000 a year. Syzmanski says there hasn't been the same jump in tourists from countries like Germany or France. But he says there's a reason for that.

SYZMANSKI: These are countries where people have always gone to South Africa and people in those countries would already know if they were interested in visiting South Africa. And somebody coming back from the World Cup saying they had a wonderful time probably wouldn't change their mind about it.

KELTO: Syzmanski says this boost in Latin American tourists doesn't come close to covering the costs of the World Cup. But it does show that hosting the event can change the way some people see your country. I met up with the Mendizabel family for breakfast before they left Cape Town. They told me about visiting museums, seeing penguins, going to the beauty salon. And Isabella, the granddaughter, was especially excited about visiting Cape Point - a scenic peninsula.

I. MENDIZABEL: It was amazing. We loved it.

KELTO: She said they walked along a rocky cliff, high above the ocean and even saw some wild baboons. That's when Luis, her grandfather, played a little trick on her and her sister.

L. MENDIZABEL: They were afraid of seeing the baboons and all this stuff, and they were walking, and I just go behind them and grab their legs or pinch their legs.

KELTO: Did it work, did it scare you?

I. MENDIZABEL: Yes. It really feels like someone - not my grandpa - is grabbing me. You know, like a baboon.

KELTO: So could the same thing happen in Brazil? Could tourists from, say, Africa or the Middle East start going to Rio in bigger numbers because of the World Cup? Economist Stefan Syzmanski says maybe. It depends on how people see Brazil now and if the World Cup changes their mind. Anders Kelto, NPR News, Cape Town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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