Years ago, I attended an international press conference in Germany with journalists from around the world, where the German National Tourist Office talked about the state of inbound tourism, including the usual facts and figures about international arrivals, hotel expenditures and so on.
Of particular interest was which marketing campaigns had the most impact in wooing international visitors. Was it family travel? The great outdoors? Culinary Germany?
No, the big news – and the speakers could hardly contain their excitement talking about it – was the impact of 2006 World Cup Soccer championships, which had taken place the previous year.
Journalists from other countries began scribbling notes, asking questions and taking photos, while the handful of writers from the U.S. sat, pen poised over our notebooks, looking underwhelmed.
It’s not that we didn’t care at all about soccer. We just didn’t care that much.
Given the frenzy here surrounding this year’s tournament in Brazil, the days of Americans yawning in the face of World Cup news are over. The real question, though, is whether the momentum will be enough to entice U.S. fans to the next big venue in four years, especially since the 2018 host is none other than Russia.
“I think this interest in watching soccer and traveling to watch soccer will steadily increase in the next few years. However, I am very concerned about the location of the 2018 Russia World Cup,” said Anbritt Stengele, president and founder of Chicago-based Sports Traveler, which sells packages to World Cup and other big-ticket sports event. “With the unrest created in the region by the crisis in Crimea and the terrorism issues that led up to the Sochi Olympics in Volgograd, I think travelers will be quite wary of planning their travels to Russia for the next World Cup – especially wary of planning for travel to this event now, so many years in advance with the future stability of the region still unknown.”
Interest in travel to Russia has gone up and down enough this past year to give you whiplash – first there was the pre-Olympic furor over discrimination against gays and lesbians, followed by a post- Games uptick that was quickly stamped out by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
But if the situation does stabilize – and a lot can happen in four years – what could the impact on tourism be?
For one thing, this would be the first time an Eastern European destination has hosted the event, which in itself is worth noting. For another, the Russian venues include lesser-known cities, like Kaliningrad and Kazan, as well as known quantities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, thus introducing attendees and TV spectators to new regions in the destination.
Whether the country would derive a net financial gain is debatable. Germany certainly benefited from the 2006 event, even managing to draw an additional 21.1% in overnight stays by visitors from the U.S. and selling 25,000 tickets to World Cup matches to U.S. sports fans. On the other hand, the championships took billions of dollars to produce, as do all World Cup and Olympic Games events.
Far more importantly, though, 40 million or so TV viewers were exposed to a destination with a friendlier, more welcoming face than Germany had previously been known for. Inbound tourism has continued to build on that image ever since.
And the 2006 host cities of Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund, Leipzig, Cologne, Frankfurt, Kaiserslautern, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Munich, are still benefiting from the improvements to the infrastructure that led up to the championships.
Of course, it’s too soon to predict how all this will play out in Russia.
Or as Stengele put it: “If the issues in the region calm in the future, sports fans will travel. Only time will tell.”