There is perhaps no greater sports rivalry in the world bigger than the one seen when Indian and Pakistani cricket teams face each other. Due to political tensions between the two neighbours, these contests have become rare, but whenever they occur, they not only provide a wholesome entertainment, but also keep the viewers glued to the edge of their seats throughout the matches.
Little wonder then, that any India Pakistan match is a sold-out show as soon as ticket sales begin. So hungry are the fans, belonging to not only the two countries, but in general any cricket fan.
Thus, the fans were in for a special treat at the ongoing Asia Cup 2022, a regional championship of T20 cricket teams since India and Pakistan faced off not once, but twice during the tournament. Coming as it did after a long break, imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the matches were a huge draw not only in the stadiums in the United Arab Emirates, the host nation of Asia Cup 2022, but they also drew record crowds to the online streaming platforms.
According to initial statistics, over 176 million viewers tuned in to watch the first six games of the ongoing DP World Asia Cup 2022. Of this, a huge chunk belonged to a single match as the first high-power encounter between India and Pakistan on August 28, recorded a cumulative reach of 133 million and registered 13.6 billion minutes, registering a growth of almost 30pc compared to the Ind-Pak encounter in Asia Cup 2016.
Besides the hundreds of millions of online viewers, the matches also drew record crowds as the stadiums were packed to the capacity on both the occasions. Indeed, for the hosts, UAE, mainly Dubai and Sharjah, Asia Cup was yet another demonstration of sports, notably cricket, as a huge magnet to draw Indian tourists.
Over the past few years, under a decade for sure, Dubai has really emerged as the host of preference for cricket tournaments, either multilateral, global or even bilateral when a normal host is unable to host these tournaments, notably Pakistan which has converted Dubai and other emirates into its home ground for all practical purposes.
Dubai Economy and Tourism Department is definitely not complaining about playing host to so many cricket matches that see thousands of tourists flying in from the subcontinent, just as someone would take a domestic flight in India or anywhere else in the region to watch their favourite player or team on the pitch.
“With the T20 World Cup last year and Asia Cup this year, we have further solidified our foundations in the subcontinent, that if your home cannot host the event for any reason then Dubai is just like your home and the kind of feedback we get from industry and travellers is that indeed Dubai is really the favourite ground for India and the entire subcontinent and we are really proud to have put in that infrastructure, but more than that, because infrastructure is available in some other places as well, but it is the trust that Dubai has earned as a convenient and comfortable destination which is unique,’’ Bader Ali Habib, Head of Region – South Asia, International Operations at the DET, tells India Outbound.
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“They know that we are able to put together the various stakeholders needed for curating a tournament, so at least in cricket, which is the most popular sport in the region, we have built those foundations,” he adds.
Old concept, new evolutions
Certainly, the concept of sports tourism is not new. Decades ago, even before the boom in tourism began, Sharjah was a well-known name in India, not because millions of Indian tourists thronged there, but solely on the back of the Sharjah Cup Cricket tournaments that were a regular feature there and which almost without exception featured the hottest match – an India-Pakistan encounter.
The first match of the Sharjah Cup took place on April 6, 1984 and was played between Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the first India-Pakistan match occurred on April 13 the same year. The organisation of tournaments where the best teams in the world would come and play was an absolute winner as an idea to promote the destination and in this Sharjah was definitely way ahead of perhaps any other country in the world.
Sharjah Tourism officials say that the games did play a very important role in creating awareness about the destination even in remote parts of South Asia.
“Of course, you remember the historical matches between India and Pakistan, which took place at Sharjah. Everyone knows about Sharjah, even people from remote villages, even if they know Sharjah because of that match. So, you can see the power of sports tourism. Especially a game like cricket that the people like here so much. More than 200 million people watch the IPL, for example. Now, to have them attempt to hold such tournaments in the UAE is very strong promotion for us,” Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, Chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority tells India Outbound.
For Sharjah and Dubai, sports tourism is a great way to attract tourists and both destinations say that besides watching the matches, the sports fans turn tourists and stay on to explore. “Sports tourism is a very good tool to attract tourists. But not only during an event but also for them to explore these destinations, and for us. For example, for people who come to Sharjah to watch a cricket match, we do not want them to leave without knowing anything about their destinations. So, we partner with the organisers, or with the big events, as a tourism authority and we showcase what is happening in Sharjah. Even sometimes the players, when they have time, we take them on different tour programmes that we have. We take them to cultural events. If they like cultural or eco-tourism, we have 5-6 different programmes. We take them and show them around. This leaves a very good impression!’’ says Al Midfa.
Dubai’s Bader Ali Habib says that by hosting sports tournaments over the years, Dubai has indeed become a longer-stay destination. “One thing is clear, it is not a place where you come for a sporting event and then leave. Dubai has a lot of things to make it a wider holiday and the length of stay has increased to over a week, especially post pandemic and we work with trade partners to develop sporting packages of minimum of 5-6 nights or even 8. And if you look back four years ago, it was 3.5-4 nights as people saw Dubai as short stay destination. Moreover, sports tourism adds value to every other tourism related activity hospitality, gastronomy and culture and boosts the local economy in more ways than just the tickets for the tournaments,” says Habib.
Dubai is now looking to expand its footprint to other sports and has been creating events and setting up infrastructure for sports like swimming, triathlons and golf, with the last one becoming a major sports activity to draw tourists from India.
Golfing in Thailand
One destination that has already established itself as a reference point of sorts for golf, at least from the perspective of Indian golf amateurs is Thailand, which has been placing itself in the sport for the past several years and has built up a calendar of golfing events of various categories that attract the professionals, amateurs and even first-timers. “In terms of golf tournament in Thailand, we have international tournaments – one is Honda LPGA that is a professional golf association tournament. The next will be in March 2023 and another one is the Asian Tour in which a number of Indians also participate. In terms of promoting golf as part of tourism, we also encourage the Indian golfers to just go and enjoy and experience a game of golf in Thailand. We see lots of trends like this where Indian golf amateurs go and organise their own tournaments. Sometimes some golf tourism agents also organise some tournaments. And we see lot of movement from India to Thailand for these,’’ Vachirachai Sirisumpan, Director Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) New Delhi, New Delhi, tells India Outbound.
Triway Travels in Bengaluru is one such travel firm that regularly mounts groups of Indian golfers to Thailand and other destinations. In early September, it is taking a group of 40 golfers from India to Thailand for a specially curated tournament. “We are doing a Bengaluru Invitational Golf Tournament, from September 5-8. There would be around 40 golfers who would be attending the event. This will be basically from South India only. This is basically done to promote Thailand as a preferred golf tourism destination in South India. It is being done in collaboration with Tourism Authority of Thailand and this is the first one that we are doing as an invitational amateur golf tournament,’’ Lokesh Bettaiah, CEO of Triway Travels, tells India Outbound.
Bettaiah says that his company has taken golfers to many destinations like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Scotland and the United States. The average size of a golf group going overseas to tee-off can vary sharply, says Bettaiah, ranging from a handful to a huge group. “It starts with four people going, it is like a four-ball thing. It can then go from multiples of four people go as a group. Usually, the average size is about 16. But then there are also bigger groups travelling. There is a Golfing Addicts Society of Southern India and they have annual events where people go in hundreds!,’’ says Bettaiah.
Though it may be well-known in India for its golfing, Thailand is looking beyond golf to promote in India, at least in the mid-term. “At the moment from the Indian market, our priority would be golf due to the demand and potential that we have at the moment. But there are other sports, too, in which people can either participate or at least watch. Most popular for both categories is marathons and we have lots of marathons going on around the country throughout the year. Another one is cycling that is very interesting as lots of people are doing that. Also, I have to also talk about, our national sport which is Muay Thai (Thai Boxing), that is quite popular. Many people go to Thailand to learn and train for Muay Thai. They have the short course and the long course as it has both physical and mental part and many people practice it as it will help you to focus your mind. And I would like to touch on some water sports activities that we have in Thailand and now we have a trend in southern part of Thailand, that is surfing. Since this is the monsoon time, it is the right time to do surfing which we can do in Phuket as well,’’ says Sirisumpan.
Besides golf, Muay Thai and water sports, which includes diving since Thailand is home to several exotic diving sites such as the ones in Phi Phi islands near Krabi, Thailand is also popular as a cycling destination and a host of other sports. “I see many cycling people going as well, and I see lots of potential. But then as a tourism board, we also have our strategy to prioritising. So right now, we have golf, and next year we are looking at Thai Boxing, that would be the one and then diving. These we will be promoting more, while others like cycling and marathons we would like to create greater awareness on the events, that will take place in Thailand,’’ says Sirisumpan.
More than a niche now
Though it may not rival the bigger segments of outbound tourism from India like leisure, MICE or even destination weddings, outbound sports tourism has grown over the years into a business vertical and one that is growing rapidly enough. Like Bettaiah, a few other travel companies in India have realised the opportunity in the domain and have built complete business around it. Kolkata-based Gainwell Travels is one such example of a prominent travel firm that has created a separate vertical whose key activity and strength is catering to outbound sports tourism. While the parent firm was established in 1991, Gainwell Sports was founded in 2015 with the aim of providing sports fans an opportunity to watch their favourite teams perform live at global events at affordable prices.
Maanav Saraf, Executive Director of Gainwell Travels and ‘Vice Captain’ of Gainwell Sports, says that the market has indeed expanded rapidly and gone way beyond cricket, especially for the millennials who are keen to explore and experience sports tournaments around the world.
“The number of sports fans in India is unimaginable. Indians are just about waking up to the idea of travelling across the world to watch their teams play live and the unimaginable thrills such trips provide. Millennials embrace spending on experiences such as sports and the various once in a lifetime opportunities around such events. Apart from cricket which obviously has a huge draw, Indians have been travelling to watch various football events, tennis grand slams and Formula 1 races which has been a big growth area for Gainwell Sports this year,’’ Saraf tells India Outbound.
According to Saraf, the top five sports for which Indian fans like to travel are cricket, football, tennis, F1 and athletics. He says that while the UAE and Middle East in general have emerged as top destination in recent years because of the various sports rights being procured by these countries including Cricket World Cup, Asia Cups, IPL, Formula 1 and now the Football World Cup, European nations like UK, Spain and France have always been big draws for football events and Australia has seen massive repeat traveller traffic since reopening after the pandemic.
Renowned Indian influencer and restaurateur Harjinder Singh Kukreja is one such sports traveller, who jets around the world to witness key sporting tournaments.
Most recently, he was in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, attending the Commonwealth Games. Kukreja says he thoroughly enjoyed his experience watching the games in the city. “Birmingham’s hosting of the Games has exceeded everybody’s expectations. Everyone in the West Midlands – from the taxi drivers to the volunteers to the members of the public were high-fiving everybody and being such good hosts to the estimated 1.5 million people who visited the city during the Games. The whole region of West Midlands rejoiced and celebrated the games and rightly so, because this was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity!’’ Kukreja tells India Outbound.
Kukreja says that while he attended the opening ceremony of the Games and Swimming competitions, he did not see many tourists from India attending the Games. “Truthfully, I didn’t see many Indian sports tourists even though participation by Birmingham’s Indian population was extraordinary,’’ adds Kukreja. He then goes on to explain the absence of too many tourists from India himself, saying, “Indians mostly love to travel for cricket.’’
Democratising sports tourism
It is certain that not every fan of ace Indian cricketer Virat Kohli can afford to follow her idol around the world to watch him play since the costs of travel and stay can be on the higher side due to many factors such as high demand for hotels and even travel to a destination when there is a major sports tournament is being held. However, Saraf says that increasingly his clients are coming from middle income households, indicating a greater desire to experience sports overseas, even if it pinched the pockets a bit.
“We cater to a large number of high net worth individuals or HNI sports fans around the world and also non-resident Indians or NRIs from various countries traveling to watch team India. Recently though, we have also been making a large number of sales to middle income groups and budget sports fans which shows that we have been getting closer to our aim of making these sports events affordable. A large chunk of sales is to corporate clientele who love to organise dealer and distributor incentives around big sports events. We also serve to a large number of travel companies across India who have partnered with us to source sports events and this includes some of India’s largest travel companies,’’ says Saraf.
Triway’s Bettaiah is of the same opinion that there is a wider segment of population in India that is keen to travel for sports. “Oh, yes! There is a huge potential in India. There are more people now with disposable income, like some millennials. Some are just backpackers. Most people visit specific destinations for all sorts of sports. They are the people who want to witness sports events all across the globe. It is not as if they want to go as a tourist. There is a huge potential for India as far as sports tourism is concerned,’’ he says.
Though Asia Cup may be over soon, the cricket fever is unlikely to subside anytime soon as Australia is set to host the ICC T20 World Cup from mid-October onwards. And travel agents are reporting a strong demand for these matches in India. For companies like Gainwell Sports, the upcoming tournament has emerged as a goldmine with large scale bookings.
“The ICC T20 World Cup Australia 2022 is by far our most important and successful event where we have thousands of fans booked. We are the official hospitality agents for this event. We have corporate clientele doing dealer groups and many individual HNI clients who’ve reached out to us directly either through referrals from the official ICC websites or through recommendations from our previous clients. We are also being supported immensely by Tourism Australia and the various State Tourism Boards in Australia and the Australian High Commission who is in touch with us regularly to try and ensure every deserving sports fan wanting to watch the T20 World Cup are able to get quick visas,’’ says Saraf. Just as the cricket championship would wind up, the focus of sports fans worldwide would move to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries where Qatar will host the FIFA Football World Cup 2022 that will kick off days after T20 finale. Though the craze for football in India is still nowhere near that for cricket, the sport is becoming more popular across the nation and many travellers, notably millennials, have been travelling to Europe for Champions League and other premiere championships. Hence, it is but natural that there is a lot of interest in India for watching the tournament in Qatar, especially since it is the first time that the World Cup is being held so close to India and in a place which has direct flights to most major Indian cities.
“There’s a huge demand for the FIFA World Cup but unfortunately due to prohibitively high pricing of the Official Match Hospitality Programme, there’s much fewer takers. We do have some clients wanting to spend these large sums though and refer them to the official channels to source hospitality packages. Staying in Dubai or Saudi Arabia are ways in which football packages for this year can be made cheaper,’’ says Saraf.
Paris Olympic 2024
At the end of the year, once the football fever subsides after the World Cup, the next big global sporting jamboree would take place barely 18 months later, in mid-2024 when the French capital, Paris, would welcome the 2024 Olympic Games, exactly 100 years after the Games were first held there.
The host nation France is excited about the Olympics especially since the last Olympic Games, held last year in Tokyo, were a total washout in terms of viewers since Japan was closed to foreigners. Hence, the Paris Games ought to be on track to register record number of visitors and Atout France, the tourism promotion body of France, is already gearing up for the Games and especially in attracting tourists to see the Games in the stadiums.
“There is already an exciting build up to Paris 2024, which promises many exciting opportunities for us in terms of strengthening our visitor arrivals into the City of Light and a natural expansion into other cities of France. Outbound sports tourism is finding its rightful place under the sun and over the last few years, Indian travellers are planning their voyages around sporting mega events. We are optimistic that Paris 2024 will attract many Indian fans. We also believe that the Games would be of interest to tourists visiting the city for their holidays,’’ Sheetal Munshaw, Director of Atout France India tells India Outbound.
“We do have plans of showcasing Paris 2024 through various marketing campaigns and the like which would most likely be launched towards mid or end 2023, which would essentially be closer to the event,’’ Munshaw adds.
While the Olympics may see a much larger number of sports fans head to Paris, France has been attracting some Indian sports fans, notably for the Roland Garros French Open tennis championship, the Formula 1 race as well as football and even rugby, to a smaller extent.
Munshaw says that an Indian sports fan is no different from a global sports fan. “Most of these fans normally follow the sport and plan their travel around the time of the event be it Roland Garros, the Champions League, or the F1 race in Monaco. There is also a growing interest in travelling just to be part of the experience of a global sporting event.
We have also observed that there are families who would want their children to enjoy an experience of this sort as many children do practise a sport of some kind or the other. Keeping this in mind, we would be promoting sporting events like Roland Garros, Champions League and the Tour de France amongst others. The idea is also to weave in the tourism element in host cities so that more and families are encouraged to plan their holidays to France around sporting events,’’ she says.
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