Spectator-less British & Irish Lions tour a hammer blow for SA tourism

Spectator-less British & Irish Lions tour a hammer blow for SA tourism
Lions captain Paul O' Connell beats Victor Matfield in the line-out during the Third Test match between South Africa and The British & Irish Lions at Ellis Park in July 2009. (Photo by Stu Forster / Getty Images)

With a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic closing in on South Africa, allowing spectators into stadiums for the tour of South Africa by the British & Irish Lions was never likely to be green-lighted by the government, even though this will have a negative effect on the country’s economy.

It is one of the most anticipated events in world sport: the British & Irish Lions versus the Springboks. Had it not been for the coronavirus, it would have been billed as the “all-conquering Lions versus the world champions”.

The interest would have generated a few billion rands in revenue for South Africa, with tourists converging on the country to watch the rugby spectacle held once every 12 years. 

Ultimately, however, the country’s National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) turned down those lobbying for a restricted number of spectators to be allowed into the stadiums.

The argument by those wanting fans was that at a venue such as FNB Stadium, which has a capacity of 94,000, bringing in 20,000 people would not be a great risk as there would be enough room for physical distancing. But the NCCC felt the risk was not worth the reward.

Now Tourism SA, which would have benefited greatly from the tour of the Lions under normal circumstances, is looking for ways to make the most of the opportunity which at least sees the tour even take place. At some points, even that seemed to be in jeopardy.

“The Lions tour was our largest and biggest sporting event for the year. Having the UK and global fans coming through to South Africa, that would’ve been tangible spend-benefit that one would see on the ground,” SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona told Daily Maverick.

“But we live in a very difficult environment [at the moment], and we all have to pivot one way or the other. Therefore, we’ve had to relook at what our return would be. It’s not so much spend or people coming through, but rather utilising all those millions of eyeballs focusing on South Africa to make sure we’re not forgotten when the time is right to travel again.”

Ntshona told Daily Maverick that they would find creative ways of infusing some of South Africa’s key attractions as a backdrop to the Lions games, which will be broadcast on TV.

“The focus is obviously rugby, but the backdrop is South Africa. Therefore, how do we infuse our destination and our wondrous sights in that 80 minutes where you’ve got people’s focus?” said Ntshona.

In 2019, South Africa’s tourism industry pulled in R43.9-billion for the national economy, although SA Tourism doesn’t have stats on what percentage of that was sports tourism.

Another report, by southern African accounting firm BDO, estimates that had it happened under normal conditions, the Lions tour could have made South Africa around R3.5-billion from projected direct expenditure and R6.6-billion in indirect spending.

As it stands, at least SA Tourism will still have the opportunity to sell the country to potential travellers, with engagements around the Lions tour, which is why they were against the matches taking place in Britain.

There was a point when Britain was being touted as an alternative destination on the premise that the country might be able to allow fans into stadiums. This came under serious consideration, but ultimately guarantees of fans attending games and government money to underwrite the Lions versus Boks in Britain could not be obtained.

Ntshona says he was strongly opposed to such a suggestion as it would have taken away the authentic South African backdrop.

“The tour [being moved to Britain] would have made a difference, and I pushed hard against that. Because my fundamental reasoning was that there is no country in the world that will guarantee you that there will be fans.” 

The CEO said had it happened that way, it would have been an even bigger blow to South Africa’s tourism sector.

The arrival of the pride

The British & Irish Lions are scheduled to kick off their tour with a match against the local Lions on 3 July. After that, the visitors take on the Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and the South Africa A side. They close off their tour with three consecutive Tests against the Springboks.

SA Rugby said that, despite the decision to play in empty stadiums, it was keenly anticipating kick-off.

“This is not the Lions Series we imagined when we started our planning more than 2½ years ago, but in the circumstances, I think it is an exciting prospect,” said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux.

“After all the uncertainty, it’s a relief to be able to put a stake in the ground and confirm what the series will look like — I’m sure most of us can’t now wait for kick-off.”

Had the event been called off, as some sports events have since Covid-19 descended on the world, SA Rugby, much like the tourism industry, would have lost significant income in the form of broadcast revenue. As it is, they can deliver on that part, while providing a platform for SA Tourism to market the country. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    When the dates for the tour was announced DM placed its usual limitation on comments due to its skewed views on protecting commentators and itself when Covid is mentioned. Suddenly readers are allowed to comment. Since my e-mails to object get ignored may I ask publicly: So what has changed DM?

  • Hari Seldon says:

    by 3 July millions would have been vaccinated. In addition most people in the UK would have been vaccinated. It is possible to have vaccinated people fill the stadiums: 1) its outdoors, and 2) the vaccines in use in SA and UK are good and dramatically reduce the risk of transmission.

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