The Caribbean can no longer rely on white-sand beaches and clear blue waters as its principal selling point. CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, a native of the Cayman Islands, believes sports tourism, particularly soccer, presents big opportunities for his homeland. As the territory prepares to host 23 countries for the regional Under-15 Championships, Webb outlines his vision for the role the beautiful game can play in Cayman’s future.
CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb believes hosting the beach soccer world cup is a realistic target for the Cayman Islands if it embraces the potential of sports tourism.
Speaking in advance of the region’s first Under-15 tournament to be hosted here from next week, Webb urged his homeland to take advantage of growing opportunities to push Cayman as a host country for sporting events.
He feels a beach soccer world cup on iconic Seven Mile Beach with the Caribbean Sea in the background would be the ultimate marketing opportunity for the Cayman Islands.
The territory has a chance to prove itself from 13 August when 23 teams from across the region visit the island for a youth tournament.
From an organisational and participation standpoint, it will be the biggest sports event Cayman has ever hosted. And Webb makes no bones about it – the island is on trial.
“The ability for Cayman to host other events will be highly dependent on the success of the Under-15 Championships and this tournament will act as a measuring stick for Cayman’s capacity to host others,” he adds.
Webb, also vice president of football’s governing body FIFA, is an important figure in the world game. His influence has clearly helped steer the tournament to Cayman’s shores.
He admits to a touch of bias when it comes to his home country and the regional governing body will return in October for a conference that will bring 200 officials to the island.
On the heels of that, in January, the CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championships will be held in Cayman, attracting around 700 visitors, along with television crews.
But he cautions that government and the tourism department must do their part too. The Bahamas and Barbados in particular are established in the region as sports tourism destinations and Cayman is playing catch-up.
“The industry leader is Barbados. They recognised this years ago and have been investing in it heavily. We are behind, but if we start now, I think there is still a huge opportunity there for the Cayman Islands,” says Webb.
The Under-15 tournament will bring roughly 700 players and officials to the island during low-season for tourism in the Cayman Islands.
Organisers predict the entourage of family, friends and support staff will see that number swell to around 3,000 with the potential for repeat travel and word-of-mouth marketing magnifying the benefit.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell put the figure at $20 million when asked to estimate what the event could mean for the island’s economy.
The logistics of putting on a competition, that has required a $200,000 infrastructure upgrade and will utilise hundreds of volunteers, have been the biggest challenge.
“From a participation standpoint, there is no bigger event outside of the World Cup. It is the biggest sporting event in the history of the Cayman Islands from an organisational perspective,” says Webb.
Provided the Cayman Islands invests in its sporting facilities, this tournament could be just the beginning.
Sports tourism is a $600 billion industry worldwide, with the World Cup and the Olympics the biggest draws.
It is still a growth area in Cayman and Webb believes it is time to take it seriously.
“I would like to see Cayman become more active as a sports tourism destination. We must continue to invest in infrastructure to be able to do that.
“The last few years have been very hard for Cayman. We have not really positioned ourselves to start thinking and realising that tourism is the only sustainable element of Cayman’s economy.
“We don’t really have control over the future of the financial industry. We rely on others. Tourism is where we can invest, diversify and grow,” Webb says.
While small Caribbean Islands could never dream of hosting World Cup matches or even a Gold Cup, the growing sport of beach soccer represents a perfect opportunity to combine the elements of sports and tourism.
The Bahamas hosted a world cup qualifying tournament on the beach in May of this year. Tahiti will host the finals.
So size is no barrier to success in this arena.
Webb continues: “CONCACAF is going to have another beach competition in two years and if we are able to create the right infrastructure, Cayman would be a leading prospect to host it. From there, who knows?
“One of my over-arching beliefs is that Cayman could host the beach world cup. I actually believe we could do that. There are plenty of places on Seven Mile Beach where you could erect a pitch.
“Something like that, with the likes of Spain and Italy playing on the beach here, would bring millions to the economy. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”
He said 13 countries vied to host the tournament in September, making it the most competitive bid in FIFA right now.
Cayman has one of the best infrastructures in the Caribbean and the country is easily accessible for travellers. However, it is expensive and upgrades are needed to the sports facilities if it is to be a genuine contender for more CONCACAF events.
The changing rooms and the quality of the pitches are two areas that need to improve, says Webb.
“We have spent money on our sports facilities in recent times but we have done a deplorable job in terms of maintaining them.”
He said he had spoken with the sports and tourism ministers and was confident that Cayman could become a much bigger sports tourism destination.
“It now comes down to vision and leadership,” he adds.