Sports special: Holidays for sports fans

Go on holiday and see your favourite team play – it's a fan's dream come true. Simon Redfern on the growth in sports tourism

Lugg likes rugby as well. This time, he is following the entire Lions rugby union tour, a six-week extravaganza currently in progress, and rather than making his own travel arrangements he has booked a package with Gullivers Sports Travel: flights, accommodation, tickets, internal travel, the lot. Which must make him one of the oldest, and most enthusiastic, devotees of a growing market: sports tourism.

Travelling to support your team is hardly new, but the scale of the British and Irish invasion this time is unprecedented; it is estimated that more than 30,000 will be in New Zealand for all or part of the tour. Caroline Readings of Gullivers says: "We've got 5,000 clients toing and froing, although only 240 are doing the entire trip. The majority arrived before the First Test [which took place yesterday], and overall, we've got more than 10,000 tickets for the three Tests. To ease the accommodation shortage, we've hired a P&O liner which sleeps 1,100."

Big business, then, and booming business too. Readings says: "We've seen a lot of growth in the past 10 years." That view is echoed by David Pye, marketing manager of The Sporting Traveller. "It's definitely an expanding area, we can tell that from our own business and also by seeing more and more firms coming into it, especially in the cricket and Continental football sectors."

So, what are the advantages of buying a package over organising your own itinerary? A one-word answer is: tickets. For oversubscribed events such as the Lions tour, these can be difficult to get hold of, and hi-tech, computerised systems designed to track their source have made black-market purchases risky; if you're refused admission because of the dubious source of your tickets, there's not a lot you can do about it. Tournament organisers license a certain number of tour operators as official ticket suppliers, removing that concern.

But there are other benefits, apart from removing the organisational hassle. Tourists often enjoy travelling with companions who share their enthusiasms, and most of the larger operators include well-known players, past and present, as hosts. Fred Wallis, 53, a Londoner who earns a living importing motorbikes from Italy, arranges his business around his love of cricket. He has been on every overseas England cricket tour for the past 12 years, always travelling with one of the big operators. "You know you're going to be with like-minded people, and never stuck for someone to have a chat or a drink with," he says. "I've made a lot of friends on tours over the years, and we liaise before each winter, comparing notes on what we think the best deals are."

At the moment, he is weighing up his options for England's tour of Pakistan in October and November this year, the tour of India in March and April next year, and wondering whether he can fit in a trip to Australia from 5 to 19 October for the ICC Super Series, three one-day internationals and a full Test between Australia and a World XI. The Sporting Traveller is offering a variety of packages between eight and 11 days, from £1,417 to £1,992.

Not everyone is as comfortably off and time-rich as Wallis; that tends to be the province of those whohave reached a certain age. "With cricket, the vast majority we take are over 45, with a definite male bias," says Pye, a view echoed by Readings. "As a rule of thumb, the longer the tour, the older the people," she says. "Younger clients will usually opt for one of the shorter, cheaper packages."

One option for younger cricket fans is Barmy Army Travel. The Barmy Army sprang raucously into being during the Ashes tour of Australia in 1995, when some of the travelling support decided that if England couldn't beat the Aussies, they would outsing, and outdrink, them. But their unruly image disguises some shrewd commercialism; the name has been a registered trademark since 1995, and is now a limited company with its own travel arm.

Suranjan of Barmy Army Travel claims: "We're recognised by most of the cricket authorities these days, and we can generally provide people with a similar package to the large operators at a lower price because we don't have marketing costs. We've nicked some customers from the big boys and tend to have a younger crowd, with more females travelling with us than the average. We saw that some of our members were getting married and having kids, so now we've got a kids' club on tour, so that people can go out for the day knowing their children are being looked after properly."

He is putting the finishing touches to his Pakistan and India packages, and says: "We're looking at taking around 80 to Pakistan and 400 to India at the moment, but if England win the Ashes this summer it will be very good for business." Just so you know what you'll be getting into, he adds: "The Barmy Army drinks at cricket, but so does everyone else; the difference is, we shout as well."

Other big players offering a variety of sports include Kuoni Sport Abroad, which, apart from cricket, rugby and motorsport – rallying as well as Formula One – is offering three-day packages to next year's Ryder Cup in Ireland, from 22 to 24 September at the K Club in Co Kildare (prices to be confirmed). Robert Broad Travel has organised trips to the Dubai Sevens, leaving on 30 November (four nights between £671 and £1,339). And the Mike Burton Group, founded by a former Lion who is nevertheless broadminded enough to embrace the round-ball game, is offering official packages, including tickets, to next summer's football World Cup in Germany. Again, he has yet to finalise prices.

Beside these large groups sit the niche, one-sport companies. Motor Racing International, for example, proudly draws on 25 years' experience. Next week, the company will take you by coach to Magny-Cours for the French Grand Prix on 3 July, throwing in either a night in Auxerre for £165 or three nights for £249, though tickets will be extra, from £69-£245. If the débâcle at last weekend's US Grand Prix – in which only six cars competed – has put you off Formula One, then you could consider joining the 400,000 fans at next May's Indianapolis 500. This year's package, including flights, tickets and four nights' accommodation, came in at under £1,000.

Horse Racing Abroad has been in business even longer, 30 years, and apart from trips to the big set-piece events such as the Arc de Triomphe (featured on page 7), also organises "holidays with a racing content", in the words of its managing director, Ian Fry. "We're not a huge operation; we'll have about 3,000 clients a year, of which 1,500 will go to the Arc, where we're unique in having our own grandstand and providing an English commentary. We get tremendous repeat business – I know most of our clients by their first names. And while some events are for the racing purist, we like to offer something different as well, we like to put them in the sunshine. In January, for example, we took a party on a three-day trip to the Grand Steeplechase de Pau in south-west France, and this summer we've introduced a three-night stay in Sorrento with a day's racing in Naples." That package, from 15 to 18 July, includes flights, five-star accommodation and racecourse admission and costs £695.

Pye identifies this mix of sport and sightseeing as a big growth area. "We started doing Spanish football weekends three years ago," he says. "You can see the match, and still have plenty of time to enjoy the city." The Sporting Traveller is finalising the forthcoming season's packages; you can register on its website to receive details as soon as they are released.

Other companies in this area include BAC Sport and ATP Sports Events, which offers Italian league matches as well. For a match at Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium, BAC's prices start at £270, not including flights, ATP's from £625 include flights, but all three companies offer a multiplicity of packages, so careful comparison is needed.

Whatever your choice, let's hope that Oscar Wilde was wrong when he opined that "travel narrows the mind", and that your sporting odysseys leave you less confused than the former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, who when asked about his brief, unhappy experience playing in Italy for Juventus, replied: "It was weird; it was like being in a foreign country."

The Facts

Gullivers Sports Travel (01684 293175; www.gulliversports.co.uk)

The Sporting Traveller (01737 244398; www.thesportingtraveller.com)

Barmy Army Travel (0845-061 0612; www.barmyarmytravel.com)

Kuoni Sport Abroad (01306 744345; www.sportabroad.co.uk)

Robert Broad Travel (0845-003 2211; www.robertbroadtravel.co.uk)

The Mike Burton Group (01452 412444; www.mikeburton.com)

Motor Racing International (01304 612424; www.motorracinginternational.uk.com)

Horse Racing Abroad (01444 441661; www.horseracingabroad.com)

BAC Sport (020-7456 7100; www.bacsport.co.uk)

ATP Sports Events (0870-990 6787; www.atpsportsevents.com)

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