Where Have All The Fans Gone?
Organisers of cricket's showpiece event at one of the world's dream tourist destinations are facing empty seats inside stadiums and poor business with vacant hotel rooms outside them.
The seven-week Cricket World Cup in the West Indies was promoted as a perfect sports tourism package, with sun-drenched beaches and the chance to watch the sport's elite contest its biggest one-day prize.
However, organisers and the tourism industry for the eight Caribbean nations staging World Cup matches are bitter after a fraction of the tens of thousands of fans expected actually took up the expensive trip.
Last week's shock first-round elimination of India, the team with the biggest fan base, has sent panic waves across the region with the multi-million dollar businesses around it scrambling to cut losses.
Cricket-mad India, the game's commercial hub providing most of the major sponsors for the event whose players earn a fortune in endorsements, were stunned after defeat against unheralded Bangladesh eliminated them.
"It is like Brazil going out in the first round of a soccer World Cup," Chris Dehring, managing director and CEO of the tournament, told Reuters.
"There is virtually no substitute when a team like India goes out in terms of a travelling contingent," he said outside the brand new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua.
West Indies' struggle for form is not helping either -- they have now lost heavily to Australia and New Zealand and face a real battle to qualify for the semi-finals.
Dehring said the poor fan interest was unlikely to have a major financial impact because sponsorship had been secured and the majority of tickets pre-sold.
However, he admitted the situation was causing concern for an event which had been estimated to make a profit of around $240 million.
The inaugural World Cup in West Indies, who won the first two editions in 1975 and 1979, was expected to be the cricket fan's ultimate spectacle.
Local governments were persuaded to build new stadiums and hotels with funding from foreign government and hoteliers were asked to be ready for the extra visitors during the peak holiday season leading up to Easter.
Some even evicted their tenants before ramping up their tariffs, but their hopes of making quick money has been dashed, leaving everyone from hotel owners to cab drivers frustrated.
The fans have partly been kept away due to high entrance prices -- tickets for Super Eights are priced between U.S.$25 and $100 -- and regulations barring music bands which generate a carnival atmosphere at West Indies grounds.
Neil Forrester, general manager of the Antigua Hotel and Tourist Association, said the whole concept had been flawed from the beginning.
"This is the busiest season in the Caribbean but hotels don't seem to be busy," he told Reuters. "Every island is complaining."
He believes organisers were wide of the mark about fans, particularly after many well heeled Indian expatriates cancelled their bookings following India's elimination.
"Overall this is an expensive destination which is not ideal for this type of event," Forrester said.
He said many Australian fans had been asking for $100 per night lodgings when even smaller hotels in Antigua charged between U.S. $200-300.
The situation contrasts with major events in other parts of the world which budget tourists can afford to attend.
All involved in the event were unanimous that India's exit was bad for business.
Four years ago, avid Indian fans who made last-ditch plans to attend the World Cup final versus eventual winners Australia in South Africa, purchased England's dark blue colours after India's own light blue variant were sold out.
This time merchandise outlets heavily stocked with Indian team clothing were wringing their hands in despair.
"Giveaway, what else?" said a sales girl at the Trinidad airport as she surveyed her shop.
Dejected Indian fans were also selling their match tickets on the e-Bay web site.
Dehring said many other factors had led to the situation.
Ticket prices were high because regional governments wanted to recover the large sums spent on infrastructure.
Unlike bilateral series, matches are shown live on local TV which acts as a disincentive to attend them.
Some of the best seats in the stadiums were also empty because sponsors, many of them Indian companies, had purchased tickets in advance but now had no takers.
Dehring hoped the fans of champions Australia and the English would help save the situation in the end.
"We are in discussion with the governments and will be looking at incentives from a marketing perspective for some matches," he said.
It was unrealistic to expect a packed stadium every time, though, he stressed.
"Bangladesh versus Ireland, you can't expect too many. That is due to the vagary of sport."
© Reuters 2007.