Sports Tourism gains momentum

04 October 2011

September 27th was the United Nations World Tourism Day so I thought it an opportune time to be reflecting on some good news, which is that UNWTO are forecasting a 4-5% growth overall in tourist arrivals for 2011. South America saw a very healthy 15% rise in international tourist arrivals during the first half of 2011 which I believe is an early indicator of future trends for this region. However some of you may be less aware of the steady rise in sport tourism. Since the 1980s travel companies have been able to secure tickets for large scale supporting events and package them with accommodation and transport but the pace of this growth has been difficult to quantify.

Forecast Growth in international arrivals to 2020 Source: World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)

For those of you living in the South East of England, you may be both looking forward to the Olympics happening from 27 July – 12 August 2012 but also wondering how it will affect your daily life. The BBC claim that at least a third of Londoners are going to have to change their travel plans in order to ensure the city’s transport does not overflow. It’s a good job that Londoners have really taken to cycling recently as there was a 20% increase in London daily cycle trips between 2005 and 2006. Those of you coming to the World Travel Market (WTM) this year should try out the new London rental bikes across the city in Zone 1 – you can’t miss them.  

A Barclays bike rental docking station in London. Source: www.geograph.org.uk  for map of rental bike locations.  

I thought it would be a good time to review why sport tourism has become a fast growing travel sector in its own right.  There are plenty of sports aficionados currently climbing out of bed at ungodly hours to watch the live rugby matches from New Zealand, but also an increasing number of sports fans travelling to watch or to participate in sports first hand. People compete to buy 2012 Olympics tickets and Goal.com reported 90% of the 2.8m World Cup 2010 tickets were sold, more than a month before kick off, with an average ticket price of $139.
 
There are plenty of sceptics out there who have doubted the value of the Olympics to the UK economy which emerged during WTM 2010 discussions but the lessons from Barcelona, Sydney and South Africa are that major sporting events helped to put these destinations up the league tables for visitor numbers.  
 
Those destinations gearing up for a large influx of sports tourists over the next few years such as London (2012), Abu Dhabi (2013), Rio de Janeiro (2014 & 2016), Dubai (2015), US (2017) Moscow (2018) Tokyo (2019) could invest some time to learn how to maximise the benefits from these three experienced hosts of sports events. Those markets sending tourists to key sporting events would also benefit from advising them to book early like the Indian travel industry as Traveltechie urges Indian tourists to book early for the 2012 Olympics as the Hotels.com price index shows that hotel prices rose 14% during the New Zealand Rugby World Cup.
 
Established players like Thomas Cook have created dedicated sports travel divisions, and  the variety of sports events now offered is bewildering.  The sheer number of those attending international sports matches is colossal totalling 5.5m in 2010 alone as reported in Wikipedia.

 However HBR issues some words of caution in its article on The Tourism Time Bomb given the capacity issues for the forecast number of tourist arrivals shown above. Thomas Cook will have its work cut out building new partnerships to focus on the markets hosting the key future global sporting events and where the key future growth in tourism will be. These official sports partnerships are often agreed years in advance so forward planning is key.
 
Speaking to Thomas Cook Sport this week they mentioned that there is much ground work to be done and I’m sure their WTM stand which they are hosting with their Olympics 2012 colleagues will help them to build the international partnerships and contracts they will need. Other players such as TUI (Thomsonsport) and Gullivers (Gullivers Sports Travel) have also been active in this market. Thomas Cook started in Sport Tourism about 8 years ago and has had quite a lot of involvement with sports such as football, with their shirt sponsorship for Manchester City. Many of these sponsorships have evolved into full blown travel partnerships for clubs like Arsenal.
 
However not all markets are created equal and whilst South Africa enabled Thomas Cook to tailor make safaris with matches, other sporting events may be less lucrative, such as the Euro 2012 Polish matches. However those that crack the right combination of travel in attractive destinations such as Brazil with games tickets are likely to be the winners.
 
The million dollar question is whether increasing airline taxes on long haul trips will dent the fan’s enthusiasm. However as Thomas Cook point out, if you are spending £4-6,000 on a long haul trip, the APD tax becomes a much smaller, however not insignificant, percentage of the total, and they are lobbying hard to try to lower the tax.
 
In the past sporting trips were often organised by schools or small sports clubs but perhaps the rising importance of health and safety concerns have deterred many of these organisations from offering these types of trips. The cost of insurance has escalated so a new breed of dedicated sport travel agents has now evolved.  When you delve into the research[2] there are marked differences in the habits of German and Dutch travellers where sports related trips account for 50% of outbound trips versus only 23% for French outbound travellers so a key to success in this market is to research your target market closely. 
 
It is claimed in Wikipedia that the global sport travel industry is worth $US600 billion (although I could not find a source) and it is no longer a niche market as new sub markets are defined by Gammon and Robinson as: 
 
Hard sports
Examples include large pre-organised games such as the Olympics and World Cup.
Soft sports
These include trips taking part in activities such as hiking, trekking, skiing and kayaking.
 
Other definitions include sports event tourism, celebrity and sport activity tourism.
 
Whilst you can now study a course in Equestrian Tourism it is likely that more niches will emerge from the rising popularity of sports tourism. The length of “sun and sand” traditional summer breaks in parts of Europe, have been slowly eroded, in favour of additional activity and sports driven breaks. This trend has been largely assisted by the rise of the low cost carriers, although I would now argue that increased departure taxes and the recession have slowed demand.  
 
What are you doing to benefit from the increasing popularity of sport tourism?
What trends have you noticed in this sector and how fast do you think it is growing?

[1] Sport tourism development By Thomas Hinch, James E. S. Higham 2004
[2] Resident Perceptions of Mega-Sporting Events: A Non-Host City Perspective of the 2012 London Olympic Games by BW Ritchie  2009 Jounal of Sport and Tourism Volume 14, Issue 2-3 2009
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