This weekend, Riyadh will host the world heavyweight title rematch between Britain’s Anthony Joshua and champion Andy Ruiz Jr of the United States, in a landmark fight dubbed the “Clash on the Dunes.” While celebrity sporting events undoubtedly bring prestige, they often fail to translate into economic benefit: Brazil, for example, is still struggling with crippling debts from hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
In the case of this fight, however, Saudi Arabia’s nascent tourism sector – traditionally focused on religious pilgrimage – could actually benefit enormously.
There is a massive potential for growing the Kingdom’s tourism industry: Out of the total 18 million people who visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, fewer than one million were tourists on holiday. This implies a ratio of less than 0.03 recreational tourists per inhabitant, compared to 1.2 for France, and 3 for Singapore.
The “Clash on the Dunes” is an ideal event at an ideal time to help boost this number.
With the recent introduction of tourism visas in Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that any visitors coming to watch the fight will displace existing visitors or simply divert the spending of existing visitors from alternative tourism activities to the fight. Hotels will be below capacity and won’t have to juggle tourists with Hajj pilgrims, who come in summer, while the mild weather is attractive to American and British boxing fans.
One of Saudi Arabia’s leading goals is attracting a new type of tourist. Ruiz is a dual national, with a large fan base in both the US and Mexico; together with Anthony Joshua’s home the UK, tourists from these three countries accounted for 4.4 percent of the total number of incoming tourists in Saudi Arabia in 2017. A world championship fight could help boost this number and attract affluent visitors who can market the country to their affluent friends on social media and when they get back home.
The fight also offers Saudi Arabia an opportunity for worldwide exposure, confirming the Kingdom’s openness to new tourists. The highlight video from the first Joshua-Ruiz fight, which took place in New York in June, was the number one trending video on YouTube for two days after the fight and continued to get high traffic afterwards. This marketing aspect is critical in overcoming the large fees and commissions charged by the international body that grants the rights to the event. While the direct fight-related income may be minimal, the economic boost will stem more from exposure and future tourism revenues.
Realizing all of the potential benefits requires assiduous planning so that the Kingdom can prepare a suitable experience for tourists and viewers of the fight based on their tastes, preferences and spending power. Further, local stakeholders must be engaged in the planning. Hotels, restaurants, museums, and other sectors stand to benefit; but realizing the maximal benefits requires an appreciation of their circumstances, best achieved by involving them in the planning process.
Moreover, coordination helps prevent capacity constraints in one sector which can undermine the benefits available to another. For example, there must be enough taxi drivers at the airport to get tourists to hotels, and restaurants need sufficient waiting staff on duty during the event to serve tourists. Poor coordination has damaged many major international sporting events in the past, such as transit bottleneck that disrupted Superbowl 48 in New Jersey, 2014.
A key goal will be organizing complementary activities for tourists who are there for the fight and for prospective tourists watching the fight from afar (or hearing about it on the news) to plan for when they come to Saudi Arabia. In addition to the highly successful Riyadh Season of ongoing entertainment shows, the Umrah pilgrimage (which has no fixed dates) can also play an important role: it is a globally unique tourist service that complements any activity undertaken by a Muslim visiting Saudi Arabia.
The government realizes the potential of Umrah, and its Vision 2030 plan targets 15 million Umrah pilgrims by 2020. The Joshua-Ruiz fight offers a golden opportunity for an aggressive marketing push that builds upon the huge infrastructure upgrades in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina during the last decade, at a time of year where these cities’ hospitality facilities are undersubscribed.
In the future, once Saudi Arabia has established itself as a conventional destination for recreational tourists, there is a real risk of sporting events becoming white elephants – events which end up proving far more expensive than the income they bring in. Greece’s economic difficulties in the last 15 years are partially the result of the Athens Olympics in 2004.
But in late 2019, a well-organized world heavyweight boxing fight backed by a comprehensive strategic plan will surely reap dividends for the emerging tourism sector in the Kingdom.
Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.
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