Visit Rwanda donned the arms of Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, some of the biggest names in football, as Arsenal kicked off their 2018/19 Premier League campaign on Sunday.

It was a bad start for Arsenal as they fell to a 2-0 defeat against reigning champions Manchester City, but it was the perfect one for Rwanda. As the East African nation seeks to boost its tourism industry, it took centre stage on Sunday in front of a capacity crowd of 60,000 at the Emirates Stadium, and hundreds of thousands more watching back home.

However, at a cost of approximately $13m (£10m) a year, the Visit Rwanda Arsenal deal has faced plenty of criticism since it was announced back in May.

Some have labelled the deal as a vanity project, given the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is an avid fan of his “beloved club” Arsenal.

Likewise, the country’s reliance on foreign aid, which makes up around 17% of its current annual budget, has also sparked outrage.

However, the deal could be more useful than it might first seem to be, most notably in the tourism industry, where Rwanda is already seeing an increase of visitors from the United Kingdom.

Attracting tourists

Rwanda has seen the benefits of increased tourism in recent years, as the number of visitors jumped from 504,000 to 987,000 between 2010 and 2015. The industry has almost doubled its income in that time, as spending by international visitors rose from $202m to $368m.

The East African nation has plenty to offer international visitors: picturesque landscapes, ancient volcanoes and a third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

Sponsoring Arsenal will put the Visit Rwanda logo in front of an average crowd of close to 1 million in the UK alone when the club’s games are shown live on Sky Sports or BT Sport. International viewers will push that number far higher.

Paul Phipps, the CEO of Visit Florida, said last year that bringing 100,000 more tourists to the American state could be worth up to $200m annually. That came shortly after Visit Florida had announced that it would sponsor Fulham football club for the 2016/17 Championship season.

However, a year on it was confirmed that Florida was ending the deal following criticism over how the tourism organisation was spending its budget. It’s difficult to say whether the deal had any impact on tourist numbers, but given its abrupt end, we can only assume that it failed to provide a return on investment.

High stakes

With an average television viewership of 580,000 last season, Fulham offered, at most, only half of the exposure that Arsenal can provide Rwanda. However, the outlay for Visit Florida was just $1.25m annually, compared to the Rwanda/Arsenal deal’s $13m cost.

A jump in visitors from 926,000 to 987,000 between 2015 and 2016 was worth an additional $64m in revenue for Rwanda.

In order to pay back the $13m outlay, Rwanda would need to see 12,400 more visitors pass through its doors. That would be one in every 80 television viewers, which seems somewhat unlikely.

However, the head of international development at the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, told The Guardian that the deal could generate as much as £300m in new revenue, a 1,000% return on investment.

“What you’re buying with sponsorship it’s brand recognition,” he said. “Football shirts can be over-monopolised by things like online gaming companies, so it will stand out.”

Good signs

Rwanda saw a 21% increase in visitors from the UK in 2017, so this seems like a good place to start as the country looks to boost international visitors to 1.7m by 2028.

The Arsenal deal alone won’t achieve that, but it will certainly do its job of providing exposure as part of a wider campaign to improve visitor numbers.

The Caribbean island of Barbados, another nation hoping to boost GDP through tourism, has seen the results of similar “strategic marketing efforts”, according to its Tourism Minister Richard Sealy.

Part of these marketing efforts was a two-year partnership between Liverpool football club and the Barbados Tourism Authority, which saw the island become the club’s official tourism partner. As part of the deal, Liverpool advertised Barbados as a holiday destination to its army of fans.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, Barbados recorded a record number of arrivals in 2017 for a third consecutive year. Arrivals hit 625,000, up from 520,000 in 2014, with the UK accounting for 34% of visitors.

While growth of the tourism industry isn’t down to one particular effort, the Barbados Tourism Authority seems to be doing something right.

It’s unlikely that the country will see a short-term return on the Visit Rwanda Arsenal deal. However, if the goal of this deal is to strengthen Rwanda’s tourism industry long-term, then it stands a far higher chance of achieving its goal.

Criticism of the deal tends to focus on Rwanda as a receiver of international aid. For a country with 63% of its population living in extreme poverty, which receives more than £60m in aid from the UK alone each year, it’s easy to criticise Rwanda for spending 50% of that amount to put a logo on a football kit.

Yet, that is the exact reason why Rwanda has chosen to invest so heavily in sponsoring one of the world’s best supported football clubs, as it strives to become self-efficient and overcome its reliance on foreign aid.

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