tourism & city branding

Interview with Florencia van Houdt, Head of Sport Unit, European Commission

Jul 3, 2021

Recognising the cross-sectoral nature of sport – An EU perspective – “Sport tourism can play an important role in recovery and resilience building.”
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What is the current situation in relation to sport tourism in Europe?

It should not be a surprise that the current COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on the sport sector and tourism. The consequences of cancelled or postponed sport events are immense for a wide range of stakeholders, including event organisers, sport federations, clubs, the athletes themselves and spectators. The events affected have included the Olympic Games, championships in a variety of sports, the regular competitions and matches and the events of local clubs. The economic impact of the pandemic on the sport sector was also evidenced by a study published in November 2020. Sport is going to be a major and visible element in the rebound from restrictions and this will include people travelling to re-engage in sport tourism.

How do you define the role of sport and physical activity within the tourism sector?

Indeed, there are many elements of the sport sector that have been considered a very important part of tourism strategies in the EU. Overall, sport tourism can have two main aspects: active and passive. First, active sport tourism is where a physical activity is the main or an important contributory reason for choosing a specific holiday package. Examples are visits that include walking, cycling, hiking, skiing, canoeing or extreme sports (some of whose activities are also referred to as ‘adventure tourism’), most frequently taking place in rural or remote areas. Secondly, passive or inactive sport tourism – attracting visitors as spectators, with associated activities – is also a very important element in creating an attractive destination for domestic and international visitors, in particular in cities. This dimension typically has a sport event as the main reason for the visit to a particular destination.

What role can cities play in the development of sport tourism?

Sport tourism can play an important role in recovery and resilience building as we emerge from the crisis, contributing to a greener hospitality and experience economy, while generating social and environmental benefits in local communities. As also underlined by a study published in March 2021 on innovative practices in the EU to promote sport outside of traditional structures, there has been a growing appreciation of the need to facilitate exercise and sport within cities as part of making cities healthier and more attractive environments. Further initiatives in this area can benefit from the New European Bauhaus initiative at an EU level. At the same time, cities continue to develop sport facilities not only for their own inhabitants, but also because they know that this makes their city more attractive as a destination and as a location for other investment. Sport tourism is an important part of this dynamic.

How do you see the future of sport tourism, considering climate change?

Tourism in general, including sport tourism, can have many positive benefits both for visitors and the host societies, but, unless managed well, it could also leave a significant carbon footprint. Sport can contribute to a greener tourism by making its own activities and facilities sustainable, using outdoor sports to raise awareness of environmental issues, for instance by spreading the tourism load over a larger area and an extended season as well as promoting alternative means of transport towards active mobility.

How does the European Commission support the development of sport tourism?

In recent years, EU policy makers have gradually recognised and acknowledged the cross-sectoral nature of sport and its significant contribution to areas such as health, sustainability, innovation, social cohesion, or tourism. As part of its work in diversifying the tourism experiences on offer in the EU, the Commission co-funds, through the COSME programme, sustainable transnational tourism products that can contribute to tourism growth. These are thematic products and services in areas such as environmentally friendly tourism including cycling routes, sport tourism, nature tourism and cultural routes crossing Europe. Furthermore, the Commission has supported the SHARE initiative as an action to promote the contribution of sport to regional development, including through interaction with other sectors, and notably tourism. SHARE activities include developing research papers, identifying best practice examples in an online database, a capacity-building programme for sport stakeholders to unlock the recovery funds within Next Generation EU and the Cohesion Policy funds and organising high-level events (e.g. in the context of the European Week of Regions and Cities).

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