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Bright Future for International Sports Tourism in Asia

Search ASIA Travel Tips .com Latest Travel News Send to Friend Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Major sports events are not a new phenomenon in Asia; Tokyo and Seoul have both hosted successful Olympic Games, the first Asian Games was held 95 years ago and the South East Asian games has been on the calendar for 50 years.

However Asia’s travel and tourism industry is witnessing something new as Beijing gears up to host the Olympic Games in August 2008 – this mega-event is now supported by a raft of new events and investment region-wide which are beginning to drive significant tourism volumes.

Abacus President and CEO Robert Bailey said that Beijing has proved to be an inspiration for Asia and the travel industry has begun to see just how powerful a driver of growth that sports tourism can be.

“Added to that, certain sports which used to be the preserve of Western countries also see the prospect of growth here in Asia and there is a sort of gold rush as these codes seek greater exposure here,” he said. “With a number of countries within the region now boasting first-class facilities and many more developing them, Asia is on track to be the home of the away game.”

Mr Bailey believes mega sporting events can generate more tourist business by spotlighting a host city and there are many opportunities for travel agents to specialise in this emerging high-end niche segment as regional demand grows.

A study of sports tourists by the Sports Business Group found; “They are passionate, high-spending, enjoy new sporting experiences and often stimulate other tourism. Their direct benefit to a destination is cash - their indirect benefit can be years of follow-on tourists.”

Playing to win in China

In August 2008 Asia will host what is arguably the ultimate sports event – the Summer Olympics. It will involve thousands of athletes watched by an army of officials and spectators and will be seen by around 95% of people worldwide with access to a television, according to some estimates.

Beijing and the Chinese government have invested billions in preparation. Around US$40 billion has been spent directly on Games preparations including new sporting facilities and upgrading Beijing’s transportation, utilities and other infrastructure. A further US$200 billion is earmarked for the city’s air and water pollution problems.

As well as one million domestic tourists, Beijing is expecting 500,000 foreign tourists during the Olympic Games and these foreign visitors will inject US$5.6 billion straight back into Beijing’s economy. Beijing’s hotels are almost fully booked over the Games period and guests are paying record rates.

Abacus Vice-President for Content Marketing and North Asia, Patrick Lai said that even after the Olympic Games is over Beijing and China will continue to enjoy the benefits of hosting the games due to a number of factors.

“With the construction of ‘The Birds Nest’, Beijing’s 91,000-seat national stadium, the city now has a jewel in its sports hosting crown and this and other Olympic facilities will bump Beijing to the top of the consideration list for other premium international and regional sporting events,” said Mr Lai.

He also believes the introduction of a variety of new sports under the Olympic Games to the Chinese public will generate interest in and demand for such new sports events to be hosted in China. With the population size and the abundance of corporate sponsorship opportunity in China, this will become an important factor in the choice of venues by all major sports events organisers.

“Added to that, it is yet another type of travel that agents can add to their repertoire. Travel agents who specialise in dealing with the complexity of arranging for their customers to attend major sports events in China and who manage to build up contacts and connection with local organisers will be able to create an interesting new business segment for themselves. We also hear from agents that this is particularly popular for corporate and incentive travel where sports events can be easily bundled with,” Mr Lai added.

The 2008 Olympic Games will be closely followed in 2010 by mega events such as the Shanghai World Expo and Asian Games in Guangzhou, in addition to existing major sports events like Formula 1, Tennis Masters Cup, and the HSBC Champions Golf Tournament in Shanghai.

The Lure of the East

While not every country in Asia is in a position to be able to host an Olympics, the Beijing Olympics has been paralleled by the increasing number of Asian cities injecting themselves on to the international circuit for other sports.

Driving the growth of sport tourism has been increased global interest in sporting events on the back of the massive expansion in satellite and digital television coverage over the last 10 years.

Sports that have a traditional fan-base in western countries are becoming popular in Asia and, due to the population numbers, governing bodies now view Asia as the new ‘frontier’ for growth.

Formula 1 Grand Prix has moved a number of the races from European or North American cities to cities in Asia and the races are now held in Tokyo, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and soon Singapore.

Earlier this year, the English Premier League toyed with a fantastical idea to play one round of the competition, or five matches, in cities outside of England. The preferred choices were cities in North America and Asia. While this was rejected by football’s governing body FIFA, it revealed that even the most popular domestic football league sees Asia as a growth area.

Two of the world’s most powerful rugby union nations, Australia and New Zealand, have agreed to play a first-class match in Hong Kong, in 2008.

Robert Bailey said, “The pulling power of sports is such that true fans will overcome their fears of the new and different, to follow their teams in foreign fields. Fan groups such as those seen at the Hong Kong Sevens, Formula 1 and the cricket in Australasia are a taste of things to come.”

Investing in the Future

Governments in Asia are already responding to this push from sports codes by investing on an unprecedented level.

Singapore, the latest city to join the Formula 1 circuit is a perfect example. As well as transforming the Marina Bay area, and building tourism infrastructure such as a new airport terminal and a range of new attractions, the Singapore Government is pledging a 60% grant to the Formula 1 organisers for each year of the race, estimated to be US$66.8 million a year.

The Singapore Grand Prix is expected to attract 80,000 track-side spectators and another 500 million viewers worldwide via the television broadcast, while the Singapore Tourism Board estimates the race will put US$72 million directly back into Singapore’s coffers.

As well as the hosting the Formula 1 event, Singapore is building a US$1.3 billion Sports Hub, with facilities such as the multi-purpose stadium expected to attract a wide variety of international sporting events in future years.

In 2010 the inaugural Youth Olympic Games will be held in Singapore. Over and above the Sin$75 million budget for the Games themselves, the Singapore Tourism Board has indicated it will spend “hundreds of millions” to publicise the event and expects it to generate a minimum of 180,000 visitor nights for Singapore, much of it sustained by overseas visitors.

Singapore’s Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said that by throwing its support behind the big sporting events the republic is hoping to develop a whole, self-sustaining sport ‘ecosystem’ that will create 20,000 jobs and contribute US$1.47 billion in GDP by 2015.

The Middle East is doing things on an even grander scale. In its imitable style of mega-developments, Dubai is building a self-contained 50 million square foot ‘sports city’ within the DubaiLand development to woo sporting events and the accompanying tourists to the emirate.

Dubai Sports City caters for almost every sport imaginable, including four stadia, a golf course designed by Ernie Els, elite training schools including the first Manchester United Soccer School and the ICC Global Cricket Academy, a large gymnasium and an Olympic-length swimming pool.

In 2004, the gulf state of Qatar unveiled a US$15 billion tourism development plan that had a strong emphasis on sport. At the time the state had already hosted international tennis, golf event and squash competitions and was preparing to host the 2006 Asian Games.

Following that initial investment, Qatar now ranks among the best tourism destinations in the world according to the World Economic Forum and has announced it is bidding for the 2016 Olympic Games and looking to host a Formula 1 race.

Research company Euromonitor points out, “This approach dovetails nicely with efforts to promote itself as an international conference and exhibition centre; both strategies represent two key pillars in Qatar’s plan to differentiate itself from its neighbours.”

At the farthest reaches of Asia Pacific, the host of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand is simply refurbishing one of its stadiums for the competition, which will bring an estimated 66,000 visitors to the country and US$400 million to the economy.

However the nation has created a ministerial position and joint taskforce to oversee the event, and even announced a specific “leveraging and legacy” project to ensure the country squeezes every last benefit out of hosting what is the third most watched sporting event after the Olympics and Football world cup.

Getting in on the action

Asia may be arriving a little later than the Middle East to the sports tourism ‘party’ but there is no doubting the commitment of many government and travel industry professionals in the region. According to Abacus’ Robert Bailey this all points to the great potential for all industry players that sports tourism presents.

“Just as professionalism in sport has created a number of new jobs for players, coaches, officials and even doctors, the increase in sports tourism has created new avenues for travel agencies to grow,” he said.

One of India’s largest travel agencies, Kuoni India, founded its SOTC Sport Abroad division in 2003 just in time for the Cricket World Cup in South Africa and has “never looked back”, according to Shyam Kartikeya, the head of SOTC Sport Abroad.

“Year after year we have only grown and have handled all major international events related to Cricket, Soccer, Formula 1, Olympics and more.”

“As disposable incomes in India grow, people are exploring travel from a different perspective,” Mr Kartikeya added. “Also the visibility of certain sports has grown tremendously in past few years and it is only going to grow more in near future which will only lead to people wanting to enjoy their favourite sport while they travel.”

SOTC Sport Abroad has been selected as the official India-region Ticket Partner for the Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix this year and Mr Kartikeya said cultivating official relationships with organisers is key for an agency wanting to capitalise on sports tourism.

“As a large agency, experienced in handling sporting events, being appointed the official travel agent for an event is an important first step and we work hard to earn this status from the outset. From there, we prepare – blocking flights, hotels and tickets based on our previous experience in this sector of the industry. It’s then down to marketing and connecting with the travellers through our 3,500 travel agents across India,” he said.

Chief of Thailand’s Six Stars Travel agency, Duke Bhornlerts, a self-confessed sports fan, said he was motivated to move into sports tourism after a number of customers expressed a desire to travel overseas specifically to watch a sports game. Six Star Travel now sends customers to the Australian Open, English Premier League games and Formula 1 Grand Prix races, among other events.

Mr Bhornlerts believes the demand for sport tourism will only grow in Thailand and across Asia.

“If Thailand and the rest of Asia do not want to lose out on this market, they will have to follow the example of other countries like Hong Kong with the Rugby Sevens and Formula 1 Grand Prix hosts Malaysia, China and Japan, and develop their own ‘brand’ of sports tourism,” he said.

Six Stars Travel has responded to these opportunities by adding specialist travel services, including sports tours, to the usual range of travel services it provides such as booking air tickets and accommodation, packages for free and independent travellers and arranging group tours.

Abacus’ Robert Bailey said that as sports tourism in Asia matures, travel agents themselves will become very important to governments and events organisers because of the distribution reach and complexity that is often involved.

“We see travel agents as being a critical element to Asia’s success in becoming a sports tourism hot-spot,” said Robert Bailey, “and even an exclusive event like the Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix has called on the services of select, experienced travel agents to help promote the event around the world.”

Mr Bailey said that travel agents who want to get involved in sports tourism need to start getting more aggressive about their knowledge and understanding of events happening in the region, and to seek to be involved as strategic partners well ahead of the event.

“Sports tourism has potential for great reward and the level of interest from the corporate sector and also government commitment and investment around the region indicates sports events will continue to be a very strong driver of growth for Asia’s travel industry for the foreseeable future,” said Robert Bailey.

“The extent to which travel agents get involved in sports tourism is really a matter of customer demand and personal preference. Right now, the ball really is in their court.”

See other recent news regarding: Airlines, Aviation, Flights, HotelsPromotions, New Hotels, Abacus, GDS, Sport, Football, Marathon, Cricket, Rugby, Olympics, Beijing

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