Soccer isn’t the national pastime in Australia or New Zealand, but those visiting during the Women’s World Cup wouldn’t be able to tell.
The tournament co-hosts have risen to the occasion, rolling out the red carpet in anticipation of an influx of soccer fans. Brightly colored banners emblazoned with the tournament’s slogan wave in the chilly winter wind in major cities and signs plastered across airports show support for local teams.
Bringing the tournament Down Under was intended as an effort to grow the women’s game, but the hosts are also hoping it’s the boost they need to re-energize the tourism industry after years of Covid restrictions, when both countries essentially closed their borders.
James Johnson, CEO of Football Australia, said hosting the Women’s World Cup “was really seen as a way to welcome the world back to Australia and also New Zealand, as well.”
“There was a point throughout the process leading into the Women’s World Cup where tourism became even more important because we wanted to show the world that although Australia was closed for the best part of two years, it was open for business,” Johnson told reporters on a call earlier this month.
Football Australia estimated the tournament alone will contribute around $329 million to the country’s economy, of which at least $174 million is anticipated to come from tourists.
“These sorts of events really allow us to get awareness up,” René de Monchy, CEO of Tourism New Zealand, told CNN’s Richard Quest. “So we’re trying to capitalize on that opportunity.”
New Zealand’s Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment estimated between 20,500 and 25,500 international visitors would be coming to the country for the tournament, which ends Sunday.
Both countries were seen as good examples of how nations could successfully fend off the coronavirus when it first hit in 2020, ordering early lockdowns and strict border measures. As Covid case numbers and deaths soared globally, Australia and New Zealand mostly kept themselves Covid-free.
But their success came at a cost. They were closed off internationally and the restrictions became increasingly unpopular as the rules dragged on, taking a toll on the economy. New Zealand scrapped the last of its Covid measures only a few days ago.
According to Tourism Australia, the country received about 9.5 million international arrivals in 2019, a record high. By the following year, during the height of Covid, tourism was down more than 80% and would keep falling.
In 2021, only 246,400 people visited the country. Most public health restrictions were lifted at the end of that year. Subsequently, Australia’s visitor arrivals have risen, with about 3.7 million people visiting in 2022, but the tourism industry has far from fully recovered.
It’s a similar picture in New Zealand. It received nearly four million international visitors in 2019, according to official data.
After the country imposed travel restrictions in March 2020, tourism fell dramatically below previous levels, with only around 200,000 international visitors arriving a year later. In 2022, there were only about 1.4 million visitors, according to data provided by the government, still considerably below pre-pandemic levels.
That’s why events like the Women’s World Cup are so important.
Cities like Wellington and Auckland have catered to World Cup tourists by making public transportation free on game days for anyone with a match ticket. Though there have been reports the local transit systems have been overwhelmed with the increase in demand, having free access makes it easier for visitors to explore the various cities, beyond just attending the games.
To accommodate the increased demand, Air New Zealand
(ANZFF)’s Domestic General Manager, Iain Walker, said the airline added more than 6,000 additional seats, particularly focused around the cities where games were being held, namely Dunedin, Hamilton, Wellington and Auckland.
Restaurants and bars are also getting in the match spirit, in communities where rugby and cricket are by far more popular than soccer.
Chow Tory, located in Wellington, just minutes away from the city’s FIFA fan site, rolled out a menu of cocktails named for 10 of the competing countries just days before the US team was set to play in the city.
There was a whisky-based smash for the United States, a colada for Costa Rica, a Spanish Sangria, a Dutch apple pie spritz, a Swedish punch with the Scandinavian liquor akavit, a South African “old fashioned” using Klipdrift brandy from the country itself and even an Italy vs Japan negroni.
Though the latter two countries were not scheduled to play each other, the negroni claimed to tie them together using Roku gin, Campari and sweet vermouth stirred with sushi rice.
The two host nations are also represented with a Rosebud for New Zealand’s Football Ferns and a Bundaberg ginger-beer-based vodka drink called “Fun Fun Aussie Aussie Aussie.”
Other businesses are also leaning into the spirit of the tournament. Some of the players have even been getting in on the action to explore what New Zealand has to offer.
The retail manager for the Wellington Chocolate Factory told CNN members of Sweden’s national team came by for a tour and chocolate-making session while they were in town for the group stage games.
The chocolate shop added a soccer ball-shaped mould and wrapping paper designed to look like a soccer field to their offerings during the tournament.
In the window, they’ve strung up bunting provided by the Wellington City Council, which features soccer balls and flags of different nations participating in the tournament.
The extra effort has not gone unnoticed by tourists, especially those who have traveled to other World Cup events.
Compared to the last Women’s World Cup in France, more businesses seem excited to welcome tourists, said US fan Carly Andler.
Andler, who attended games in both Wellington and Auckland added: “Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve felt festive energy.”