Sports tourism in Southeast Asia (SEA) has gathered pace in recent years, having beckoned an increasing number of tourists.
Sports tourism, which includes any and all types of active and/or passive touristic activities related to a sporting event, garnered an estimated $683 billion in revenues globally for 2023, Sapta Nirwandar, chairman of Indonesia Halal Life Center (IHLC), tells Salaam Gateway. Revenues are forecast to climb to $2.13 trillion by the end of the decade.
“Within the SEA region, I think Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are ahead of other countries, including Indonesia,” he says.
Among Southeast Asian nations, Indonesia is looking to establish supporting infrastructure that enables it to play host to elite-level sporting events. Backed by support from multiple stakeholders such as NGOs and private sector entities, the country is looking to build on its current offerings and welcome a string of sporting events for enthusiastic travellers.
The country has held several prominent sporting events recently, which include the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup; a motorcycle grand prix in the form of Mandalika MotoGP; as well as the U-17 FIFA Football World Cup in the fourth quarter of last year.
The Mandalika MotoGP event contributed around $292.8 million to the economy. Hotels and restaurants in the Indonesian island of Lombok, where the event was held, witnessed a 22.29% spike in accommodation, food, and beverage receipts, while the transportation sector, too, recorded a similar uptick in customers (15.36%) around the time of the event.
More non-global franchise events such as Borobudur Marathon, held in the Borobudur Temple area in Central Java, attracted around 10,456 participants last year. In addition to the race itself, participants enjoyed scenic views and sampled local culinary specialties, along with visits to the Borobudur Temple and its surrounding museums and art galleries.
However, there is visible room for growth. Alongside modern global franchises such as MotoGP and F1 Powerboat, Indonesia can adopt more local and traditional events that exploit its maritime landscape, such as sailing, swimming, fishing, and diving competitions, Nirwandar added. One such example is the Padang International Dragon Boat Festival.
“Don’t forget that sports tourism also sells destinations. We need to be like other SEA countries such as Singapore and Malaysia in terms of [hosting] a number of international events as well as maintain consistency in quality as host countries. Commitment for continuity and holding events after events or series is a must,” Nirwandar adds.
But according to him, the key for business sustainability in sports tourism, is courage and entrepreneurship skills. Malaysia, for example, had the vision to start hosting F1 and later MotoGP, around 10 or 15 years ago. Meanwhile, Singapore also hosts a similar F1 event, with a night race concept and a street circuit around Marina Bay.
“I think the formula for success in sports tourism is courage, synergy and creativity. We have to have guts to create chances, as we called it entrepreneurship skill. Dare to start and then slowly improve the ecosystem such as collaborating with the private sector, international brand(s), as well as [offering] tax incentives, license, custom and immigration facilities, so we can finally be competitive as an international event host,” explains Nirwandar.
Callum Laing, an ambassador for International Deal Gateway (IDG) and an investor, harks back to Malaysia’s role in promoting sports tourism years ago, with the country having hosted the 1998 Commonwealth Games, followed by Formula One racing. Additionally, Malaysia has taken on the Southeast Asian Games and Thomas Cup Badminton Finals. Utilizing their natural geography, it also hosts the International Kinabalu Climbathon - dubbed as the world’s toughest mountain race.
“These and other sport events generate a direct and diverse flow of travellers, including fans, athletes, coaches, media, team personnel, parents and family members,” says Laing.
Wind surfers from all over the world congregate at Malaysia’s Balok Beach for the yearly International Monsoon Madness, while Pulau Duyung in Terengganu is one of the venues for the highly acclaimed International Monsoon Cup challenge.
Sports tourism in Malaysia is scattered across a range of options, from diving to golf. One of the country’s best kept secrets, to Malaysians themselves, are dive sites, scattered around the islands along the east and west coast of the peninsulas, Sabah and Sarawak. From the peninsular west coast islands of Payar and Sembilan, to the farthest east coast island of Sipadan, over 40 islands and at least twice as many individual dive sites lay, nestled in one of the world’s richest and biologically diverse marine habitats. The 200 golf courses scattered around Malaysia also help make it an attractive destination.
Thailand, meanwhile, has also hosted many successful events, including the PTT Thailand Tennis Open, the Sawadee.com Regatta Samui, the Liverpool versus Thailand football game and numerous Asian PGA golfing events. While there are some 40-50 events annually that attract more than 300 international participants, the government’s reticence to support private enterprise mean a select few have the opportunity to rise to international prominence.
One example is the Standard Chartered Bangkok Marathon. Whilst cities like Singapore, New York and London use their marathons as an opportunity to showcase their offerings to the world, the marathon in Bangkok attracts no more than a handful of international runners and is easily eclipsed by better, privately organized events like the Laguna Phuket Marathon.
Thailand’s national sport is Muay Thai - traditional martial arts. Even before the success of mixed martial arts and the UFC, Thai kickboxing was growing in popularity in the West. “For those who want to get more involved, there are over 60,000 boxers in Thailand and several camps available for foreigners wanting to train. Many of the best fighters in the world consider training in Thailand a valuable rite of passage,” says Laing.
Nuno Guerreiro, regional director for South Asia, Oceania & Chains at Booking.com, also sees sports tourism growing within the SEA region.
One in five travellers (17%) across the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region is keen on sports and physical activities during travel, research commissioned by Booking.com revealed. The 2023 edition of the APAC Travel Confidence Index, which surveyed over 8,000 travellers from 11 countries and territories across APAC, revealed travellers were willing to book months in advance when planning to attend international or mega sports events to secure best deals and prices. In fact, foreign travellers in SEA tend to travel to the host country when their nation has an opportunity to win the competition.
“There are consumers that will plan ahead to get the best deal and prices. In fact, Singapore F1 spectators in our study are booking up to six months ahead. They later decide what activities to pursue while they travel in Singapore. In APAC, 73% of travellers are more optimistic to travel in the next 12 months,” adds Guerreiro.