23 March 2016

In a bid to solidify its profile as a travel destination, Abu Dhabi has been channelling investment into development of the emirate's sports facilities and recreational tourism offering.

Frequent staging of headline international events, as well as local and overseas sponsorship of athletic tournaments and teams, has cemented Abu Dhabi's profile as a regional leader in the field, though sponsorship revenues could see a decline this year, due to the challenging macroeconomic backdrop.Focus on sports segment

The push to become a sports tourism destination has seen Abu Dhabi invest heavily in facilities for a wide range of sports, including motor racing, yachting and water sports, cricket, football, tennis, basketball, cycling and golf.  

In additional to facilitating year-round sports for both professional and recreational enthusiasts, Abu Dhabi's mild and usually dry winters allow the country to host several sporting events during the off-seasons in Europe, North America and Asia.

According to data issued in early February by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), just over 4.1m visitors stayed at hotels in the emirate over the course of 2015, an 18% year-on-year increase.

While the average length of stay dipped by 0.3%, hotel guest nights rose by 17% to reach 12.2m, and hotel occupancy averaged 75.4%, up one percentage point over 2014.

Sultan Al Dhaheri, acting executive director of tourism at the TCA Abu Dhabi, told local media in February that the industry was headed in the right direction, despite downturns in key source markets like Russia. The emirate is increasingly looking to target markets like India, which have been less affected by currency fluctuations or slowing growth, he added.

High-profile hosting

Many of the athletic events being hosted in the emirate are organised by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), the state agency tasked with developing sports and youth activity.

Among the events regularly supported by the ADSC are the annual F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, which forms part of the European Tour tournament.

Looking ahead, Abu Dhabi is set to host the 2019 Asian Cup, one of world football's largest events, which brings together 24 leading Asian football clubs. The following year the country will stage the 2020 FINA "Short Course" World Swimming Championships.

According to John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment, competitions like November's F1 Grand Prix are more than just standalone attractions; other events are typically scheduled concurrently to maximise value for visitors.

"The diverse line-up of events surrounding the main attraction supports destination awareness, while also showcasing the emirate's strengths as a tourist destination," he told OBG. "This should bring direct and indirect benefits to the emirate's wider tourism and hospitality sector."

Sponsorship prospects

While long-term growth prospects for the sports tourism segment remain strong, sponsorship revenues could see a dip in the near term, as advertising and sponsorship are often amongst the first areas targeted by companies seeking to cut costs during weaker growth periods.

Against this backdrop, industry stakeholders will be looking to underscore the value of sponsorship of Abu Dhabi-based events. A recent poll conducted by research firm YouGov found that Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad Airways was the second most identifiable brand in the UAE.

According to Ian Hainey, managing director of communications agency IHC, which published the survey, a key factor in raising Etihad Airways's brand recognition was its sponsorship of high-profile sporting events and teams, both at home and abroad.

"Etihad's far-reaching global marketing spend, including Manchester City, F1, plus a US major league football, ice hockey, and basketball team, has ensured it comes in second place," Hainey told media in late January. The carrier reportedly has around 100 partnerships for sports and cultural events.

Etihad Airways will likely see its reach extend even further, with the airline renewing its sponsorship of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in mid-January through to 2020. The carrier also remains the banner sponsor for the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the main club partner for the Manchester City Football Club.

© Oxford Business Group 2016