Call it anti-World Cup fever: Campsites and budget-price game lodges in Zimbabwe are receiving bookings from South Africans trying to escape the frenzy of the world's biggest sporting event at home, according to tour operators and officials.
But other South African neighbors — Botswana with its game parks, Mozambique with its beaches, Swaziland with a slice of royal life — also hope to benefit from World Cup tourists who want to see a bit more of the continent.
Zimbabwe's National Parks department, in charge of the nation's 11 nature preserves, reported a last-minute rush of bookings during and surrounding the June 11-July 11 World Cup.
Emmanuel Fundira, head of the Zimbabwe Council of Tourism, said photogenic safari locations like the Mana Pools wilderness park, on the northern Zambezi river border with neighboring Zambia, were already filling up.
"We must bear in mind South Africans will be running away from the event ... we see this pattern translating into local bookings," he said.
Zimbabwe's biggest tourist attraction is Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river in the northwest. Seeing the falls is a once-in-a-lifetime experience: They constitute the widest curtain of falling water in the world — more than a mile (1.7 kilometers) wide — and are expected to attract World Cup visitors on quick direct flights from South Africa. The resort town has campsites, bed-and-breakfast cottages, and 930 star-rated hotel rooms.
But expectations of how many tourists will come are lower than they once were. Despite its abundant animal and natural attractions, Zimbabwe has been hard hit by years of economic and political turmoil, with world-record inflation and a transitional coalition government still headed by longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe.
Originally, the Harare government had hoped that up to 30 percent of soccer fans visiting South Africa would make a side trip to Zimbabwe, but expectations are lower now.
"We had false euphoria four years ago," said Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi.
Tourism in Zimbabwe peaked at 1.4 million in 1999, before the often violent seizures of white-owned farms began in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy and leading to economic meltdown.
The country has now reverted almost entirely to a hard currency cash economy, mostly on the U.S. dollar. Major hotels accept foreign credit cards, but many stores do not have swipe card facilities, and those that do suffer constant outages on their machines.
Neighbors spruce up image
South Africa's other neighbors have been sprucing up their image ahead of the World Cup and trying to make life easier for visitors.
Mozambique announced it will honor a new visa recognized by six regional countries to allow free movement between them. The country is also cutting bureaucracy often encountered by tourists from Europe and the United States at frontiers and airports.
Mozambique, a former Portuguese colonial territory, offers unspoiled beaches, deep sea fishing, island trips and cosmopolitan facilities. The main airport in its capital city, Maputo, is getting a $70 million facelift.
"Many countries in Europe and the Americas do not know what Mozambique has," said Mohamed Juma, a tourism operator in the southern province of Maputo. "I think from June, Mozambique will be on the touristic map."
‘We are ready’
The tiny mountainous southern African kingdom of Swaziland got 1.3 million international state visitor arrivals last year, up 13.3 percent from the previous year, according to state Tourism Authority chief Eric Maseko. Major attractions include wildlife parks.
Asked about the World Cup, Maseko said, "We are ready." But he added that stray cattle on roads in the countryside was still "a problem the government is working hard to sort out."
Sibonangaye Dlamini, who owns a handicraft stall in Swaziland's capital Mbabane, said he looked forward to brisk business from World Cup visitors.
"We won't change prices just because it is the World Cup," he promised.
South Africa's western neighbors, economically stable diamond producers Botswana and Namibia, are known for cultural diversity and magnificent scenery and wildlife. Namibia offers the haunting dunes of the seaside Namib desert and Skeleton Coast; Botswana has huge inland wetlands and swamps in the Okavango delta, and the Chobe game animal preserve farther north.
Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge near the Victoria Falls — known as Mosi Oa Tunya, or the Smoke that Thunders in the local language, for the roaring spray rising from the cascading waters visible from long distances.
Zimbabwe's economic meltdown and shortages of food and gasoline led to Zambia dominating tourism at the Victoria Falls on its side. Zambian operators offer bungee-jumping, whitewater rafting and helicopter rides over the falls for the so-called Flight of the Angels — taken from British explorer David Livingstone's description of the falls as "sights so lovely they must have been gazed upon by Angels in flight."
The helicopter trips from the Zambian side are $125 per person for a 15-minute trip. In contrast, in Zimbabwe's ailing economy, a waiter in the nearby luxury Kingdom casino hotel on the Zimbabwe side of the Smoke that Thunders earns $120 for a month's work. But the gaming tables at the Kingdom have been closed for lack of business, leaving only the slot machines in place.