In September, even as parts of India were yet to fully recover from the devastating second wave of Covid-19 pandemic that had struck in March, a rush of fully vaccinated travellers began flying overseas to the United Arab Emirates. No, these were not the struggling expatriate Indian workers who had been forced to return home during the pandemic. Instead, most of these travellers were the extremely well-heeled gentry from key metros of India, who were headed to the Gulf nation for watching the remaining matches of the popular cricket league, the Indian Premiere League, which had been interrupted by the second wave in India.
Not just here in the vicinity, but across the world, one of the first segments of tourism that began to find its feet as soon as travel restrictions were eased has been sports tourism. The UEFA Euro 2020 Football Championship, which too had been postponed due to Covid-19, was held from June 11 in an unprecedented 11 European nations, for the period of a month, with semi-finals and finals in London. The tournament attracted tens of thousands of football fans, mainly from across Europe, to watch the matches in stadium, despite the fact that the pandemic had not disappeared from the Old Continent at all and to some extent the football championship was blamed for an uptick in cases in a few countries after the tournament.
Big sports events, notably the Olympics as well as the FIFA Football World Cup, have always attracted visitors from around the world, but these were traditionally the hardcore fans of a particular sport. However, over the past decade or so, as tourism industry flourished globally and with a rapidly growing appetite for various sports, many more people, than just the fans, begun travelling, not only to enjoy a good game of cricket or an exciting evening at the football stadium, but also to soak in the entire experience.
As a result, now sports tourism has become big enough segment, accounting for nearly 10 pc of the global expenditure on tourism. Management consultancy, AT Kearney, estimates that the industry is worth around USD 620 billion, about 14 pc of the total tourism industry that has been valued by AT Kearney at USD 4.5 trillion. Another research, by Plunkett Group, puts the value of global sports industry, not just sports tourism, at USD 1.7 trillion. Of this, geographically, Europe was the largest market, followed by North America.
To broaden the reach and popularity of sports, new tournaments are being held in existing venues to attract more spectators, and new venues for existing tournaments are being established to add capacity. As the number of sports tourists has increased, there is a greater demand for more seating capacity at popular sporting venues around the world. Many sports clubs and events are working to increase their capacity to accommodate sports tourists.
Though India is still emerging in this segment, over the years a rising number of Indians have been flying out of the country for their favourite sports, going much beyond cricket or football. At times, they try to add an element of sports to their itinerary, even if their trip is broader and multi-destination.
Seeing the potential of the market and the evolving taste for sports tourism, a number of destinations and players have been lining up to corner a significant share of the market, if the sports fixtures are permanent fixtures on annual calendar, such as a Formula 1 Grand Prix race or a Grand Slam tournament or a football championship.
Now destinations as well as tour operators have begun including key sports events in their business plans and many actually build travel itineraries around major sports events or offer itineraries that include at least a sports match. Many destinations integrate popular matches in their promotional campaigns in order to attract Indians. India’s largest tour operator, Thomas Cook, has been on to sports tourism for a while, targeting, besides cricket, major global events like Olympics or football championships. But now as the demand emerges for other sports, Thomas Cook says it is catering to this segment as well.
“Sports and tourism are interconnected and sports tourism continues to be a growing opportunity and has been driving travel preferences of Indian consumers. Surveys indicate that Indian sports aficionados would prefer travelling to watch their favourite team live rather than go on a family vacation. India is a cricket crazy nation and with the sport akin to a religion for most Indian fans, not surprising that the T20 World Cup witnessed strong demand – our MICE Business managed 3 mid-sized corporate groups who travelled for the T20 India-Pakistan match recently,” Rajeev Kale, President & Country Head – Holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) tells India Outbound.
“But sports tourism is no longer restricted to cricket, with growing demand for sporting events such as football, tennis or even F1/GP we are already receiving queries for the Qatar 2022 Football World Cup,” Kale adds.
S D Nandakumar, president & country head, of B2B & Foreign Exchange, SOTC Travel, a sister organisation of Thomas Cook, agrees about Indians developing taste for other sports, beyond cricket and football. “While cricket and football matches remain the most popular across segments, people are also excited about tennis matches, especially if it is Federer, Djokovic, or Nadal. Watching F1 motor sports live is on the bucket-list as well and thrill seekers will look forward to watch it live,” Nandakumar tells India Outbound.
It is not just that Indians are travelling for more sports overseas, but in fact the source markets are also evolving, say the tour operators. Traditionally, sports tourism in India has been largely restricted to MICE segment as various big businesses organise large groups of their vendors and dealers to have a good time overseas while watching a big match. In addition to this, of course, were the ultra high net worth individuals (UHNI) who would not think much about spending a few million rupees to take their families for an outing to the stadium in Dubai for a cricket match or Camp Nou in Barcelona to watch the El Classico with Real Madrid.
But now, the market is expanding beyond these two categories, the professionals say. “Apart from corporate incentive travellers, the other segment that is actively interested in sports tourism are sports enthusiasts, men and women alike, and active followers of particular sports across age groups. World Cup matches are extremely exciting events as sports connoisseurs look forward to attending these live matches for years and the thrill of witnessing a match in a stadium surrounded by fellow sports enthusiasts cannot be compared,” says Nandakumar.
“While most bookings for sports tourism from India come from India Inc and the upper middle class/affluent HNI-UHNI leisure segments between the age group of 30 to 45, we have been observing strong demand from younger audiences who are keen to tick off their bucket lists,” says Kale.
It is not just the tour operators who have identified the opportunity, several destinations have also begun promoting their key sporting activities in order to attract tourists from India. One such destination is France, which is set to host a few notable global events over the course of next few years, including most importantly the Olympics in Paris in the summer of 2024.
“We see a strong potential for this in India. Over the last few years, we have had Indian visitors travel across the globe to attend sporting events be it tennis, cricket, football or even rugby. There is also a strong interest in the Rugby World Cup that will also take place in France in 2023 so we are sure that the interest in an event of this stature will definitely convert to actual travel in 2024,” Sheetal Munshaw, India director of Atout France, the French tourism promotion body, tells India Outbound.
Hectic calendar for 2022
Sports tourism is expected to continue to boom next year as well due to a series of interesting tournaments that are lined up, some of them delayed from 2021, due to the pandemic. The biggest event is of course the FIFA Football World Cup that is to be held in Qatar. Though normally the World Cup is held during the summer, the 2022 edition has been pushed back to November 21-December 18, 2022.
The year, however, opens with Winter Olympics to be held in February in Beijing, besides the usual tennis Grand Slam in Melbourne in Australia in January and the three others in France, United Kingdom and the United States, in that order. The Formula 1 Grand Prix series are also an increasing attraction as is the UEFA Champions League that would conclude in May in Russia.
Athletics fans can head to IAAF World Championships in Oregon in United States in July and those who would like to mix a bit of British vacation with some sporting action can go to Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July as well. The line-up is keeping the travel professionals busy already.
“With borders opening up and easing of restrictions, an increasing number of sports enthusiasts are keen on travelling to witness World Cup matches live. We are currently receiving initial queries from leisure travellers for the upcoming 2022 Football World Cup and are hoping that our sports loving customers will successfully cheer for their favourite teams and players amidst fellow supporters from stadiums,” says Daniel d’Souza, president & country head, SOTC Travel.
Keeping her eyes firmly on the major sporting events coming up in 2023, when France hosts Rugby World Championships, to be followed by Paris Olympics in 2024, Munshaw of Atout France expects a significant impact of the events on footfall from India.
“The host city of the Olympics has always received a substantial influx of visitors during this global event and we expect Paris to be no different. Moreover, Paris is already a popular destination for overseas visitors and its nomination as the host city will only create more traction for trips to Paris. At this point, it would be too early to predict numbers, but in an ideal scenario with the health condition that currently prevails in control, we can safely estimate a 10-15 pc increase from India,” Munshaw says.