No Lions fans: ‘We’ve had the carpet pulled from under us’

The CEO of South African Tourism, Sisa Ntshona, says it has been difficult to accept not having an influx of foreign visitors for the Bristish & Irish Lions series.

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As many as 30,000 rugby fans were expected to come to South Africa for the series in a boost to the local economy estimated to be over R6 billion. South Africa, however, remains on a ‘red list’ for British and Irish nationals which prohibits meaning travel to the country.

Speaking to TalkingRugbyUnion, Ntshona expressed his sadness at the current unfortunate state of affairs.

‘It is tough, essentially. You spend years getting prepared and getting ready to host this magnificent sporting event and it does feel like you have had the carpet pulled from under you, but it is what it is at the moment.

‘We have had a lot of enquiries about what to do next. The world is not ready to travel long haul at the moment, whether you have got a vaccine or not. I think once things start to move along, it will start to improve. We are not so much seeing cancellations from our side, but rather postponements further down the line and we will obviously take that.

‘The opportunity cost is great to things like airlines, for example. All those seats aren’t going to be booked now and then you look at our hotels, restaurants, bars etc, so that total is quite significant.

‘Just speaking to some hoteliers, they had bookings for people travelling and essentially a lot of those are not going to happen. It is a big let-down because we have built this up for so long, but we are where we are at in very different times.’

There remains some hope that a few fans may be permitted into stadia for the Lions series, but SA Rugby is preparing for a worst-case scenario of games behind closed doors.

Though the financial implications of having no ticket revenue are substantial, the priority remains that the tour goes ahead at all. It’s for this reason that the itinerary has been altered so that all matches will now be played in only two locations in order to minimise the risk of bio-bubble breaches.

Despite all the disruption, South African Tourism is trying to find a silver lining to the dark cloud.

‘For us, we have really had to do a lot of pivoting and really refocus on what we want from this tour. Of course, we are not going to get the typical tourism where you have stadiums full with tourists coming from the UK and from all over the world.

‘Basically, we want to use the maximum capability of the tournament itself more as a showpiece in terms of what South Africa has in store.

‘What is key for us is that we don’t want to be forgotten as a destination in the eyes of travellers around the world. This summer, eyeballs will be on our country and the rugby will be played in the backdrop of a beautiful country.

‘If and when tourists are able to come but not go into stadiums, we are hopeful they will get the best of both worlds because even though we love our rugby over here, a rugby game is only 80 minutes and there is still so much to see and do.’

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