Wednesday, October 5, 2022

How Sports Tourism is proving to be big business across the GCC

As the dates to the 2022 FIFA World Cup close in, the Middle East region is preparing for a tourism boom. Even as hotels in Qatar get ready for the month-long tournament, limited hotel capacities and the State’s low tolerance for alcohol and partying means many football fans and visitors will choose to stay in neighboring countries and take advantage of match-day flights that will shuttle them to the games. The FIFA World Cup 2022, it appears, will be a tourism gold mine for more than just its host country.

Dubai seems to stand to benefit the most. Of the more than 90 new flights that will land each day in Doha, about 40 will originate from the UAE. A new hotel built on the artificial, palm-shaped island has been set aside for guests who plan to base themselves in Dubai and take the 40-minute flight to Doha with streamlined immigration procedures.  A multiple-entry tourist visas for holders of the Hayya Card issued by Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 is also available, allowing them to re-enter UAE multiple times over a period of 90 days from the date of issuance of this visa.

Regional shuttle services will also connect Doha with other cities including Muscat, Riyadh, Jeddah and Kuwait City.  Saudi Arabia and Oman are both holding festivals to entice fans and plan to streamline travel procedures. The Saudi Tourism Authority says it expects to welcome 30,000 visitors because of the World Cup, and like the UAE, registered Hayya fan card holders can apply for multiple-entry visas to the Kingdom.

At its busiest period, during the group stage matches, four matches will be played in a day in stadiums in and around Doha. Two of the venues are just a 10-minute drive apart, while the furthest is just an hour away. This makes the event more compact than the 21 World Cups that preceded it. Qatar Tourism has ensured the stadiums are accessible for fans via several modes of transport, including metro, trams, buses, and tournament-specific shuttle services.

With a reduction in travel time to matches, fans who have secured accommodation in Qatar will be able to attend more than one match a day and stay in the same accommodation throughout the entire tournament. It will also allow for more time to visit and experience Qatar – its traditional and bustling Souq Waqif, museums and art galleries, range of restaurants, the beaches, and enjoy water sports.

From transportation to accommodation, a lineup of cultural activities and some help from its neighbors, Qatar seems more than ready to welcome around 1.5 million football fans from across the world to the first World Cup in the Arab world.

A new sporting hub
Despite the challenges and the planning complexity, the mood is upbeat and the region’s appeal for more sporting events and tournaments, growing. Much like Expo 2020 Dubai, the event is expected to have an overall positive impact on the Arab world and will catalyze Qatar’s long-term tourism goals, especially with sport tourism.

The new football stadiums are expected to offer sustainable growth and will continue to have a purpose beyond the FIFA tournament. Qatar Tourism wants to position the country as the top destination for sporting events and MICE, as well as for vacations, adventure holidays and stopover breaks.

Just like Qatar, the rest of the region too realizes the potential of Sports tourism today. Dubai’s world-class stay into successfully organizing mega-events were instrumental in the UAE’s selection as tournament host for the recently concluded Asia Cup.

Dubai has repeatedly proven its capability of successfully hosting world-class events, including Expo 2020, the largest event ever held in the Arab world. In fact, during the six months of the Expo 2020 (October 2021-March 2022), Dubai hosted more than 30 international sports events, including the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup qualifiers, cricket’s Twenty20 World Cup, and the European Tour’s ‘Race to Dubai’ finale, the DP World Tour Championship. Different countries participating in Expo 2020 also organized several sports-related events at the Expo’s Sports, Fitness and Wellbeing Hub, featuring some of sports’ biggest names.

According to Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of Dubai Sports Council (DSC) said, the sports sector is an important contributor to the local economy and remains part of an ambitious vision to upgrade all parts of the sports ecosystem and increase the sector’s contribution to Dubai’s GDP.

“We aim to continue offering amenities that guarantee Dubai and the UAE’s sports leadership at regional and international levels. The emirate has emerged as the destination of choice for global tourists, business visitors and sports communities. The world has reposed confidence in our ability to welcome everyone safely and securely. We are grateful for our leadership’s vision and the efforts of our frontline heroes for this accomplishment,” he was quoted.

Some of Dubai’s major annual sporting events include the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, Dubai Tour, Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Dubai World Cup, DP World Tour Championship, and Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, among others.

Similarly, sports, culture and MICE are the top areas that is expected to lead Abu Dhabi’s drive for incoming tourism this year, with the re-opening of the global tourism economy. This year the Abu Dhabi will be hosting the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the first time in the region in October. The Ultimate Fighting Championship are also set to return to the Etihad Arena.

Abu Dhabi’s government has already invested $2.3bn (AED8.5bn) over the past five years to support its CCI (Culture and Creative Industry) strategy, which covers sports, and will invest a further $5.98bn (AED22bn) over the next five years.

Else where in the region, Saudi Arabia recently wrapped up a successful Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah. The Saudi Vision 2030 aims to create a vibrant society by promoting a healthy lifestyle and well-being — physical and social. The Quality of Life Program was launched in May 2018 to deliver on this objective and sports remains central to this program, with several initiatives aiming at encouraging mass participation, improving Saudi Arabia’s athletes’ performance in international competitions and growing the sports economy, in place.

At present, the sports sector contributes around 0.2 per cent of the Kingdom’s GDP, while the tourism sector contributes about 3 per cent, according to the Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism. The two ministries have ambitious targets for growth: sports should contribute 0.6 per cent of GDP and tourism 10 per cent by 2030.

Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has seen a large increase in such activities and events, showcasing their capabilities and ambitions of hosting large-scale regional and global events. The events held so far include the WWE Super Showdown, the Saudi Pro-Golf Championship, Battle of the Champions, Formula E, E-Prix, International Handball Federation Super Globe and Saudi International Meeting for Disabilities Sport.

Hosting these major sporting events displays Saudi Arabia’s value-driven diversity and inclusiveness, high economic potential and cultural attractiveness to the wider international arena, thereby increasing the inflow of foreign direct investments (FDI). It also enhances the attractiveness and visibility of the nation’s tourism sector.

The partner for the Government and Public Sector at KPMG in Saudi Arabia, Hanan Alowain, said: “The kingdom has a reputation as a safe, welcoming tourist destination. Its familiarity among religious tourists may draw them back to the kingdom for non-religious tourism purposes or may encourage them to stay longer and diversify the purpose of their visit.”

So, why Sports Tourism?
The Middle East has been a key focus and a successful growth area in terms of all types of tourism, in particular sports tourism, as the region seeks to diversify its economy beyond oil. As the region continues to grow, tourism projects are placing sports at the heart of boosting entertainment, hospitality and tourism industries. 

Cities like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar have realized that sports tourism is an important addition to the overall destination product, which is rich in other attractions such as shopping, desert tourism, sand and sea. These destinations have been successful in securing government leadership, which is essential for ensuring that sports tourism is incorporated into the country’s development policies and agendas.

According to Qatar Tourism, an event the size of the FIFA World Cup is expected to raise tourism to 12 per cent of GDP by 2030. Key investments have been made, not only to serve the millions that will visit Qatar but also to use this time and place to showcase the country’s culture and heritage among other things.

Local development has also been crucial, especially at the community level. A thriving sports sector prompts positive spillover and ripple effects in other sectors of the economy including tourism, culture and adventure and most notably, youth and social empowerment. It also opens doors to attractive employment opportunities  in competitive sport as well as in the business of sport. 

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