Cricket’s oldest international rivalry resumed last week in Australia without a traditional taunt of traveling English fans: “We’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound.”
The Australian dollar, the second-best performer among 16 major currencies this year, has soared 55 percent against the pound since the teams last battled for the Ashes on Australian soil, making everything from the price of hotel rooms to meals more expensive for England’s so-called Barmy Army of fans.
The dollar chant “won’t be coming out of the songbook this time,” Barmy Army spokeswoman Becky Fairlie-Clarke said in a telephone interview. “It’s more like 1 1/2 now.”
The slump in visitors’ purchasing power is reducing the benefit of the six-week contest for the local economy. The 2006-07 series in Australia generated A$265 million ($256 million) in incremental direct expenditure, according to a URS Corp. report, as 37,000 fans came from Britain. That may fall to less than 20,000 this time and those that have come aren’t leaving as many dollars behind, said Andrew McEvoy, managing director of government agency Tourism Australia.
At the start of the 2006-07 series, when Australia romped to a 5-0 series sweep, 500 pounds would have bought a British tourist A$1,250, according to Travelex Ltd. The same amount is worth about A$806 now. Four years earlier, during England’s 2002-03 Ashes tour, fans were on average getting A$2.86 a pound.
One cricket fan watching his wallet as much as the contest between bat and ball this time is Andy Clark, editor of England cricket fanzine “Corridor of Uncertainty.” Clark’s latest editorial begins by asking readers whether they’re shocked at the “measly amount” of Australian dollars they’re getting.
“It’s very expensive,” Clark, 41, said outside Brisbane’s Gabba stadium, which hosted the first match. “The cheapest pint of beer you can get is about 4.50 pounds, which is too much. I made two pints last about three hours the other night.”
Clark said he’s having to “scrimp and save a bit” to get to the five Test matches that are scheduled to conclude Jan. 7 in Sydney. He stayed with a friend in Brisbane and will do the same for Melbourne. He hired a campervan with some friends to get to the matches in Adelaide and Perth to help save costs. Backpacker hostels, rather than 3 or 4 star hotels, are the preferred accommodation, he said. He’s not alone.
“I had to stay in a backpackers’ for the first night because it’s massively more expensive than when I was here two years ago,” said James Mellor, 36, from London. “The cost of food and drink is astronomical in comparison.”
Two Nations Diverge
The U.K. is Australia’s second-largest source of tourists, trailing only New Zealand, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In September, 51,800 short-term visitors arrived from the U.K., according to the most recent government data.
The previous Ashes series provided a spike in visits, with 76,600 arriving from the U.K. in Dec. 2006, compared with 60,000 arrivals in the same month a year earlier. The next year, when the tournament wasn’t played, arrivals fell to 55,800.
When measured by economic prosperity across the population, the countries are headed in opposite directions. Led by surging demand for commodities such as iron ore and coal from China and India, the International Monetary Fund said Australia this year ranks sixth in the world in gross domestic product per capita, up from 15th five years ago. The U.K. has fallen to 21st from 11th, according to the IMF.
“People come probably thinking that they’re going to spend say three or four thousand British pounds, and it just doesn’t go as far as it did in 2006,” McEvoy said in a telephone interview from Sydney.
The Barmy Army, a semi-organized group of cricket fans whose songs provide the soundtrack to England’s overseas tours, is smaller than four years ago. About half as many tour packages have been sold through the group’s official website, Fairlie- Clarke said.
That didn’t stop choruses of “Rule Britannia” and “God Save Your Gracious Queen” on the final day of the series opener this week as England hit a record second-innings 517-1 to force a draw at the Gabba, where Australia is unbeaten since 1988.
Home captain Ricky Ponting said it felt like playing in London. “I forgot where I was,” he told reporters. “It was like being back at The Oval.”
During the corresponding match four years ago, a record attendance of 164,727 turned up over five days at the Brisbane venue. This year’s aggregate was 132,858.
Of the 813,316 tickets to the five matches of the 2006-07 series, about 245,000, or 30 percent, were bought by international visitors, according to the URS report.
Ticket sales haven’t been “quite as frenzied” as last time, Cricket Australia Chief Executive Officer James Sutherland said. The Melbourne-based governing body is expecting the number of U.K. visitors to be down, he said.
“We’re all aware of the financial crisis and the impact that had and the way it’s still affecting European markets,” Sutherland said in an interview. “On top of that as well is the currency.”
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