Hopes of a home victory in the World Cup may have been dashed, but it has not dampened the mood at the eighth edition of rugby’s biggest competition.
While the England team have not fulfilled expectations and bowed out losers, UK tourism will be the big winner off it. After all, it has been given the perfect opportunity to showcase the wonders of the whole country, and not just London as the Olympics did in 2012.
From James Bond to the Brontes, iconic sights and scenes featured in classic movies or literature provide a license to thrill and leave an indelible mark on the 466,000 overseas visitors expected during this tournament.
Patricia Yates, Director of Strategy and Communications at VisitBritain, the national tourism agency responsible for marketing Britain overseas, says: “The importance of the sporting events like the Rugby World Cup is primarily the opportunity to get destinations on televisions around the world, and the audience of this tournament is four billion people.
“Of course you have the guests and they reckon it will attract just under 500,000 international visitors who will stay in hotels that sold out of rooms in some cases a year-and-a-half in advance.
“People will come particularly from Australasia, North America and Europe, the traditional rugby markets. But the big prize is using that TV reach to inspire people to visit places they haven’t seen before, be it now or in the future.
“International visitors tend to go to London, particularly the Gulf market. They are hugely loyal but tend to be London-centric and there’s a whole country to explore.
“There are great stories to be told of regional Britain and great locations. From our literature, Shakespeare in Stratford or the Bronte sisters in Yorkshire, or where films are set like Bond. There is a romanticism about Britain and we want people to enjoy that.
“Fifty-four per cent of our spend is still in London so we have a job to do in telling people about the rest of the country.”
At the 1991 World Cup, while the final was held at Twickenham as England were beaten by Australia, they shared games with Scotland, Wales, France and Ireland.
This time, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium is the sole outside host among 10 English cities that will stage the 48 matches. They included Brighton, where the sight of South African supporters getting off the train at the station to give a guard of honour and cheer Japan fans, who had just witnessed their country’s stunning upset of the two-time champions, embodied the spirit of this tournament.
And also Leeds, home of former British and Irish Lions and Scotland coach Sir Ian McGeechan, who said: “You want everyone to see how special a World Cup is. I was there in 1987 for the first one in New Zealand and it’s amazing to see how much it has grown since then and how much the people have taken it to their hearts.”
Such heartwarming moments were also evident last year when Leeds and surrounding areas opened the 2014 Tour de France and then introduced its own Tour de Yorkshire.
And Yates adds: “Yorkshire has had a cracking few years in international tourism. They hosted the Tour de France and then, canny as they are there, they had a Tour de Yorkshire, and have seen international visitors go up about 12 per cent year on year.
“The weather was glorious and you could see people having fun – and what an advert for the region. That’s the strength of sporting events, with people saying I have to go there.
“What we also see is a shift from go-see to go-experience. We are the home of sport, but you can also take part at a local level too.
“It’s important people don’t just see The Open, but go and play the golf courses. Getting out on a bike, watch football, but go and have a kickabout, and cricket is not just about being held in a big arena, but a small village experience.”
There was nothing like the experience of an Olympics, though, for Yates as she recalls how the Games lifted London after the terrorist bombings in the capital in 2005.
Having joined that year as Head of Press and PR, she recalls: “Tourism is a very resilient industry and we have lived with terrorism for many years. There’s a real spirit of life carrying on.
“The 7-7 happened after the Twin Towers in New York, there was a new resilience and we were not going to let this impact on us.
“These things happen, I live in the centre and the first concern was for people directly impacted rather than the impact on tourism. It is about being sensible and making sensible messages. The real strong point was TV cameras going out in the street and they spoke to Americans who all said they were going to stay and there was a real sense of solidarity.
“Yes, you always have to be prepared and be able to cope with what life throws at you, but you don’t spend your life worrying about it. The first few days there was an impact on tourism, but we were back to expected numbers by end of the year. Then we had the Olympics – and we grew out of adversity.
“The Olympics were fantastic. Brits are quite phlegmatic and we don’t tend to talk ourselves up, but that was an amazing atmosphere and a real party spirit. Boris [Johnson], as the Mayor of London, wanted a party city and we absolutely managed to do that and all the things that we were worried about, didn’t happen.
“The sun shone, the tubes worked, ticketing worked and security was fine. We had amazing events and a feel-good factor from sport spilled across the nation. That’s the real power of sport.”
The Rugby World Cup is estimated to bring in £2.2 billion to the UK economy with £869m in direct expenditure, through ticket sales, travel costs, accommodation and visiting other tourist attractions.
World Rugby chief Brett Gosper has claimed it could surpass the Olympics in terms of having a greater economic impact on the country.
While the Games provided a £9.9bn boost in trade and investment, the construction of brand new arenas at the Olympic Park meant costs reached £8.9bn.
Thanks to existing stadia, this World Cup, though, will require just £85m for infrastructure. But Yates says: “I think it would have to go some to do more than the Olympics, which drove record numbers. What will be interesting to see is if rugby really kicks off some of the regions, and for some of them, it might be more important than the Olympics.
“The intention of hosting the Games was to create a real step change in tourism and we have had record tourism since the Olympics, and inbound tourism is worth £62bn to the UK. It’s an industry in which you have to compete and drive people to come. Was it worth doing? Absolutely.”
Having staged football’s European Championships in 1996, the Olympics and now the RWC, all that is left is for football’s showpiece tournament to return to these shores. It was 1966 when England were World Cup hosts the last time.
Having controversially missed out on 2018, there is a feeling that success is long overdue.
“We are passionate about football, we have the stadia, we have the appetite,” adds Yayes.
“It didn’t come in 2018, but we will be in the right place to do it if we bid again.
“Britain showed it can put on major events and put them on in a way that doesn’t worry governing bodies. We know how to do it and we have fans who will turn up and support.
“We have seen years of record growth and have an ambition to grow tourism to 40m visitors by 2020. Sport will play a big part in that. We have great events driving us and we want to be seen as one of the most welcoming destinations.”
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