Sports Tourism And The Pandemic’s Impact On Global Travel

Caesar Indra, President, Traveloka.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) cites sports tourism as one of the fastest-growing sectors in tourism. International travel as a whole experienced uninterrupted growth for decades, with nearly 1.5 billion international arrivals in 2019. But the pandemic affected sports tourism and all of international travel, and at the close of 2021, international tourist arrivals were still 1 billion below pre-pandemic numbers.

In 2022, people do want to travel, including for sports tourism. The recent SEA Games in Hanoi is proof of that—it welcomed 700,000 domestic tourists and 31,447 international travelers. More importantly, the event led to the improvement of infrastructures serving the games in the capital city. Mega sports events such as the Olympics and SEA games are powerful attractions that draw interest to host markets and catalyze the development of sports systems (infrastructure and facilities), economies and social and community legacies.

But sports tourism goes beyond major events; it includes subcategories like active sports tourism, where people travel to participate in their chosen sport, and nostalgic sports tourism, where people make trips to destinations that hosted major sporting events in the past, such as the Barcelona Olympic Stadium, which was built in 1927 and served as the major stadium for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Sports tourism might just be the ticket to motivate tourists to take flight again. Businesses in the tourism industry should prioritize building holistic, connected experiences to improve their exposure to sports tourists looking for end-to-end services as well as enrichment.

The Business Of Sports Tourism

As the SEA Games has shown, many desire to travel to be part of a major sporting event. This was not possible during the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, where tickets were not made available to spectators from outside of China. The economic possibilities can only be inferred from the record numbers, over 64 million people, that “participated” in the event via the Olympic Web and App. When tourists fly internationally to attend major sports events, they do more than watch. They participate in all the adjacent activities—sightseeing, shopping, eating, attending concerts and more.

Since its debut in 2008, the Singapore Grand Prix has been attended by more than 550,000 unique travelers and generated more than S$1.5 billion. The resulting buzz has been a boon to hospitality and tourism businesses in Singapore, but there are other positive spillover effects, such as service providers like tailors who usually see their businesses soar, thanks to tourists coming in for the F1 race. And never mind the many pieces of F1 memorabilia flooding the market, which will no doubt be sought after by some who collect these as keepsakes.

Sports Tourists Want Connected Lifestyle Experiences

But traveling through self-discovery is itself not all leisure—it’s a sport too! Sports tourism comes with bragging rights: Whoever discovers and sees more wins. Today’s travelers want more holistic and connected experiences: to do everything they can as quickly as they can.

In many ways, the global pandemic has pushed businesses—both large and small—to accelerate their digital transformation and adopt omnichannel engagement strategies to meet consumers where they are. But not every business has been successful in this, as many are still in the nascent stage of their digitalization journey. Last year was a period of frequently changing rules, restrictions and great ambiguity. This year, we are finally seeing travel truly take off. Travelers are looking for holistic experiences that will enrich their vacation days, and sports tourism might just be the salve the industry needs to get scores of people traveling again.

Technological advancements are leveling the playing field. Hospitality and tourism businesses that participate in this connected ecosystem will be the ones to take flight with sports fans and are better positioned to win the day.

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