The World Cup is over, the champions have been anointed, the king crowned.
The celebrations from Argentina’s stunning victory over France may still be raging on in Buenos Aires, but club football waits for no one.
On Monday, the English Premier League returns to action after a six-week break, an unprecedented mid-season sabbatical thanks to the first-ever wintertime World Cup in Qatar.
Football supporters from the GCC and the wider Middle East spectacularly rose to the occasion at the World Cup, and while many will now get back to domestic matters, a good number will revert to following the fortunes of the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and the team threatening to crash the “Big Six” party, Newcastle United.
Throughout Qatar 2022, VisitBritain took the opportunity to promote “Destination Britain” and inspire travel from the GCC during the World Cup and beyond, for the return of Premier League action.
It is not, however, a new trend. The GCC is Britain’s second-most valuable inbound market when all the GCC countries are combined: there were 1.2 million trips from the Gulf nations to the UK in 2019, with these visitors spending $3.14 billion (£2.6 billion).
“The GCC is a very important tourism market for Britain,” said VisitBritain’s Interim Deputy Director Carol Maddison. “With the UK Government’s The Garden of GREAT and program of events for the World Cup we have a timely and valuable opportunity to highlight our outstanding tourism offer and the amazing experiences that GCC visitors — including football fans — can only have in Britain.”
With football taking center-stage, VisitBritain highlights Britain’s standing as the “home of football” across its digital and social channels, inspiring visitors to explore its vibrant football cities and associated attractions and experiences.
While London has historically been a favored destination for many GCC travelers, more cities across the country have been attracting visitors, in many cases thanks to their football clubs and the rising popularity of the Premier League since its inception in 1992.
The likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have huge fanbases in the region, as they do around the world, while Manchester City, and more recently Newcastle, have the benefit of being, respectively, UAE- and Saudi-owned, as they look to capture a bigger share of the supporter market.
Helped by a significant choice of regional carriers and relatively comfortable flight times (Riyadh or Dubai to London takes just over seven hours), many football fans now see it as a viable option to build their holidays around watching football matches across Britain and mainland Europe.
Research by VisitBritain demonstrates the pivotal role that football increasingly plays in driving tourism to the UK.
In 2019, 1.5 million visits to the UK included watching a live football match, up 66 percent compared to 2011 when there were 909,000 visits, with football taking the top spot that year as the most popular live sporting event for international visitors.
Those visitors who attended football matches spent $1.7 billion (£1.4 billion) across the UK in total, up 84 percent on the $895 million (£742 million) spent in 2011 when the research was last conducted.
The announcement from the UK government in June 2022 that it would remove the visa requirement for nationals of the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and move onto the Electronic Travel Authorization scheme when it rolls out in 2023, will encourage more visitors to watch more football on their travels.
“We know there is pent-up demand for travel from the GCC and we want Britain to be the destination of choice,” Maddison added. “We also want to deliver a world-class welcome. The introduction of the Electronic Travel Authorization scheme for GCC visitors in 2023, alongside our strong airline and route connectivity, will make it even easier to visit the UK, boosting our competitive tourism offer to the region.”
“We’re also very excited to be launching a new marketing campaign across the GCC early next year, showcasing the great reasons to choose Britain in a year of landmark events, set to be global tourism draws. We also continue to work closely with travel trade and partners in market to convert the inspiration to visit Britain into bookings, highlighting messages of reassurance and welcome, as part of the World Cup and beyond.”
The knock-on effect on the UK economy from football tourism is significant.
Football tourists, many of whom travel from Saudi and the UAE, tend to stay longer in Britain, 10 nights compared to all-market average of seven.
During that time they spend $1,100 (£909) per visit on average, 31 percent more than the global visitor average of $840 (£696) in 2019.
Football tourism benefits the entire visitor economy, supporting hospitality and attractions, as well as providing obvious income for individual clubs through their megastores which sell everything from the latest replica kits and training gear to scarves, toys, mugs and other merchandise.
Matchday experiences are not the only activities on offer. Stadium tours and football museums are increasingly popular with fans on non-match days.
Wembley Stadium, for one, showcases the facilities of the relatively new version of the stadium (completed in 2007) alongside artefacts and memorabilia from the old one’s unique history. Highlights include the history of the world’s oldest competition, the FA Cup, as well as England’s World Cup win in 1966.
Most Premier League clubs have similar tours, with Chelsea also providing its own accommodation at Stamford Bridge in the form of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels.
Visitors spend money at stadiums but also at the 200,000 small and medium enterprises which make up the tourism sector.
Many of those are related to football, such as pubs and restaurants outlets that show football matches, while others, such as TOCA Social at the O2 in London is sports-themed which provides interactive football games.
According to VisitBritain’s statistics, more than 50 percent of visitors who watched football during their trips also take time to see the UK’s cultural monuments and buildings, and almost three-quarters included a restaurant meal. They were also more likely than other international visitors to undertake these activities, once again highlighting the additional value football visitors bring to the economy.
The return of club football after the World Cup will be welcomed by far more than just action-hungry supporters.
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