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29 January, 2021

Football tourism: tourism revolution or football revolution?

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“Visca el Barça, visca Catalunya i visca Fuentealbilla” (Long live Barça, Catalonia and Fuentealbilla). These historic words by Andrés Iniesta after winning the treble in 2009 also sparked a revolution for tourism. Fuentealbilla’s Councillor for Culture said that mention of his town of two thousand inhabitants was the equivalent of a “multi-million euro” campaign. Five years later, Rey Juan Carlos University conducted a study to measure the impact of Iniesta’s success on tourism in Fuentealbilla, and most of the respondents who visited the town said that they only knew about it because of the footballer’s euphoric words.

The analysis, in greater detail, showed that most tourists who visited the town were Barça fans, 57% male, from Catalonia. The increase in tourism was something new, until then the town had barely received tourists at all. The locals also appreciated the fact that their town is known throughout Spain and that the arrival of visitors had also served to develop a range of wine and cultural tourism products.

In a survey of the general population that would be willing to visit Fuentealbilla, the respondents said that they associated the town with Iniesta, the local wines and its rich landscape. The main attractions were the house where the footballer grew up, his statue and the monument to the World Cup, but they also mentioned the climb up to Cerro de la Cruz, the Roman baths and the salt flats. A footballer had turned his hometown into a consolidated tourist destination with a diversified range of products simply by uttering its name. A bigger phenomenon than the Pelé museum in Santos, Brazil, or the Cristiano Ronaldo museum in Madeira, Portugal, which were already important destinations.

In 2016, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, welcomed Samuel Eto’o to a grand gala dinner ahead of a charity match in Antalya. The game had to be suspended due to an attempted coup in Turkey, but it was going to feature the likes of Marcel Desailly, Carles Puyol, Deco, Messi, Drogba, Luis Suárez, Maradona, Neymar, Hazard, Totti, Xavi, Iniesta, Turan, and others. The presence of the country’s senior leaders was due to the value that was being created for Antalya, a town in southern Turkey between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean, as a football-related tourist destination. The presence of all those stars was the best possible promotion.

The sports facilities in Antalya are of strategic value for domestic tourism because they create demand regardless of seasonal fluctuations, according to a study published in the International Journal of Trade, Economics and Finance. The fundamental goal of its off-season product is to attract football teams for training camps. The location is very popular among Russian teams during their winter break, for example between January and March. German clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt, Schalke 04, Werder Bremen, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund have also held training camps on these facilities. These visits are profitable in themselves due to the hotel occupancy by the players, coaching staff and the reporters who follow the teams, but the most valuable aspect is the media coverage, such as the event involving Eto’o and his friends. As a result of this publicity, youth tournaments get played, as well as refereeing and coaching courses; and a wide range of other activities that keep the hotels full. The research concludes that these football camps attract the same kind of numbers as the highly coveted congress tourism sector. Spain has similar facilities, such as the Marbella Football Center, which in 2019 alone was visited by 227 football clubs on average stays of eight days.

An example of this correlation between sports facilities and visiting clubs that is so important for boosting a town’s touristic value is the soccer school that FC Barcelona has set up in Haikou, China, with the capacity to host a thousand children a year. This city on the island of Hainan is being promoted as one of the greatest destinations for domestic summer tourism and it is also common for Chinese national teams to hold training camps on its football pitches. In Africa, when a team of former FC Barcelona stars played in Uganda against another formed by local legends, a study by Kyambogo University, in the capital city Kampala, considered that the presence of former Barça footballers and their tweets about gorillas in Bwindi National Park attracted more international attention than any other tourism campaign.

Clever exploitation of professional football matches or sports facilities has been revealed to be a more effective way to advertise tourism than traditional methods. Proof of this are the partnerships between unconventional tourist destinations and football clubs, such as Azerbaijan with Atlético Madrid and Rwanda with Arsenal. A team from the English sixth tier, Blyth Spartans A.F.C., even had a billboard in their stadium with the advertisement “Visit North Korea”.

The mere existence of a football club in the national top flight can have a positive effect on the total tourism a town receives. A study by the University of Zaragoza estimated that Huesca, when its local club has played in La Liga, receives 15,000 visitors a year counting fans, professionals and the press, when the city’s overall number of visitors a year is around 100,000. Similar studies have examined the opposite scenario, such as the losses that Real Zaragoza’s relegation to the second division supposed for the Aragonese capital or the days when Deportivo de La Coruña played in the Champions League, making the city famous all around the world thanks to having such players as World Cup winner Bebeto and Brazilian superstar Djalminha in the team.

However, beyond the role of superstars, the most extraordinary value of a single footballer with a strong media presence at a famous club arises when his country of origin is not a football powerhouse. For example, another object of study in football-related tourism is the so-called “Nakata effect.” In 1998, when Japanese player Hidoteshi Nakata signed for Perugia, in the Italian Serie A at the time, 5,000 Japanese tourists came to watch his debut. That year, there was an average of 300 Japanese fans in the stadium for each game. When the player was transferred to Parma, that city became the second biggest tourist destination in Italy for Japanese visitors, even ahead of cities like Venice and Florence.

However, there is no doubt that the most successful case of the tourism and football binomial has happened in Great Britain. Two out of every five tourists who go to the islands want to see a sporting event, and of those, 73% go to football. The Premier League is one of the biggest reasons why tourists go to the islands. In fact, despite Manchester not being a city with many other attractions, the Old Trafford stadium is one of the most popular tourist spots in the whole country.

A particularly noteworthy case is that of Leicester, whose club won the 2015-16 EPL ahead of much bigger-budget teams. The feat had such a worldwide impact that the city received one million more tourists than the previous year. The mayor of the city, Sir Peter Soulsby, associated the increase in tourism with the team’s victory, and also with the subsequent draw for the group stage of the Champions League.

But aside from tourists who go to a game or visit a stadium as one item on their itinerary, there are also visitors who only go to watch football. Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, the United States and the Netherlands are, in that order, the countries that such tourists come from, mainly because their own national championships are not very strong, so they go to Premier League matches instead. There have been Liverpool games at Anfield with as many as 1,500 tourists from Norway alone, and these are the most highly appreciated nationality because they are the ones that spend the most during their stay.

The problem is the effect that these tourists have on the atmosphere in the stadium. Recently, GQ magazine asked in a report whether this phenomenon of tourists in the stands gaping “open-mouthed” at the real fans of the teams “rather than joining in with their songs” might end up being counterproductive in the long term, because despite the profitability, it dampens the atmosphere.

We find the very opposite occurring in Argentina. The atmosphere on its terraces has earned Buenos Aires the title of football capital of the world. Numerous companies offer football tours and the chance to attend games, albeit with strict recommendations and some stadiums are vetoed for tourists due to safety concerns. However, it is the loss of this atmosphere in European stadiums that is attracting tourists to Buenos Aires, where they also get an additional range of football-related tours of the Boca neighbourhood, a “Paseo de la Gloria” to see statues of the most successful Argentine athletes, or a tribute to the national team with statues of Maradona, Messi and Batistuta in Plaza de Francia.

Some researchers have called this phenomenon in Europe “the gentrification of football”. It has gradually been happening since standing zones were banned after the tragic deaths caused by human avalanches in the 1980s. Now, stadiums not only receive tourists, but also entrepreneurs and executives on business trips and the grounds double as malls offering such sectors such as hospitality, fashion and other leisure products. There is a risk that the loss of the sport’s traditional ethos will end up hindering the appeal and allure that made it so popular in the first place.

However, it pays off. We must understand the less stimulating facet of the changes in the context of the revolution that football is experiencing. The fact is that stadiums are transcending everything they were in the past. They are now unique architectural structures that aspire to become symbols of their cities; venues that use cutting-edge technology to offer the best possible visitor experience and lay the foundations to cater for the demands of the new generations, fans who are much more engaged, who consume big data while attending games, and who represent a different set of values when it comes to loving the teams that their parents and grandparents loved.

Logically, this process of change has brought with it the phenomenon of mass football tourism. A highly enriching factor, as has been explained, for an economic sector that operates in fierce competition between destinations spread throughout the world. The macro media coverage that drove this sport in the 90s to become a global phenomenon, with matches that can be watched by 200 million viewers, brought with it a segment of consumers with high purchasing power that inevitably became part of football’s consumer circuit, but major stadiums are now an inherent part of their city’s idiosyncrasy. They are one further cultural attraction that a tourist destination can offer, to the extent that there are cases such as the FC Barcelona museum being among the five most visited in Spain, only behind El Prado and the Reina Sofía in Madrid. In other cases, such as the aforesaid case of Manchester, a stadium can add major value to a city of otherwise modest tourist potential.

It is a change that cannot be explained without taking into account the rise of urban tourism which, in turn, was a response to the transport revolution. However, all these developments have also benefited traditional fans in a way that they never dreamed of. The most explicit example of this paradigm shift is the diversification of Olympique Lyonnais, which broke new ground by creating its own travel agency, OL Voyages, with “all-inclusive” packages to follow the team around France and throughout Europe, as well as special holiday offers to destinations such as Ibiza and the Adriatic. Liverpool, in England, also set up a partnership with the Thomas Cook travel agency, which included the Liverpool FC Holiday Club, to receive discounts on other destinations apart from those related to the team’s travels. Clubs started to become service providers that made it cost-effective to become a fan.

All the same, it has to be said that if there is an unresolved challenge in the modernisation of the football tourism business, it is care for traditional fans. These are currently self-sufficient travellers who plan their own trips and do not need outside assistance to get to their places of “worship”. A study published in the Journal of the APTA (Asia Pacific Tourism Association) analyses the kind of tourist who is moved to travel by nostalgia. The research notes that many of them repeated trips they had already made before that involved a spectator experience, but it also reveals that it is not a sine qua non to have actually attended a game in order to feel nostalgia and plan a trip to the place where it was played.

These researchers recommended that all traditional vestiges that could hold a special meaning for fans or evoke significant football events of the past need to be safeguarded. Preservation of cultural sporting heritage would also necessarily have to be implemented with new technologies. This is a challenge for a sport that needs to continue to be attractive in a changing and sophisticated future while maintaining the essences that made it popular in the first place. In other words, commitment to purity while also breaking new ground.

 

Álvaro González

 

 

 

 

 

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