The mixing of sports and tourism is not a new concept. Long has the golf and ski trip existed, and long have tourists travelled across the world to attend the Olympics or a World Cup. However, the sports tourism industry has more recently grown in countries that haven’t traditionally been sports destinations or hosts of major sporting events. These countries noticed the economic and broader societal impacts of sport tourism and want their piece of the pie.
A large pie it is. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) pre-pandemic figures, sports tourism generates 12 to 15 million international arrivals each year and represents 10% of the world’s tourism industry, with a turnover of about US$800 billion.
Effective sports tourism requires a vast effort, including organizing spectator and participant sporting events, promoting sport tourism to new markets and upgrading infrastructure.
Coming off of Formula 1 weekend in Jeddah in December 2021— the first ever race from motorsport’s top tier in the Kingdom — Saudi Arabia appears to have begun a new chapter in its sports tourism history. It makes sense then to examine how the Kingdom can develop its sports tourism industry to maximize its potential.
Countries like Saudi Arabia are advancing agendas to build a sporting culture that attracts domestic and international tourists. This requires a vast effort, including organizing spectator and participant sporting events, promoting sports tourism to new markets and upgrading infrastructure, among myriad other grassroots initiatives. Saudi Arabia and its peers need to take a close look at what unique qualities their country has to offer sports tourists. These qualities start with geography but are certainly not limited to it. Thoughtful planning and investment— with the help of today’s technology—can foster just about any sport, anywhere.
Currently in Saudi Arabia, the sports sector contributes around 0.2% of the Kingdom’s GDP, while the tourism sector contributes around 3% according to the Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism. The ministries have ambitious targets for growth: by 2030 sports should contribute 0.6% of GDP and tourism 10%. One of the areas where these sectors cross is sports tourism.