Visitor numbers at the sailing Olympics are lower than anticipated. But who expected mega crowds for sailing?

Olympic organisers in Weymouth are admitting that visitor numbers are nowhere near as high as they anticipated. In an attempt to boost visits and assuage local residents they are reducing some parking costs.

Park and ride tickets for the Preston Beach and Mount Pleasant parks stay at £10 for ticketed visitors, but parking at the Monkey Jump site, Dorchester will be free on Thursday and from Friday drivers will not have to pay if they arrive after 2.30pm.

Free shuttle buses will take passengers to the Swannery transport hub in the centre of Weymouth.

Weymouth has been quite busy along the beach since last weekend, but perhaps no more so than usual. As I wrote here, I think the town and organisers have seriously over-estimated the appeal of the sailing Olympics.

Trains in and out of town have been only half full or less and there have been no big crowds at the special sailing Olympic and Bayside Festival sites.  

There have been around 4,000 people a day at the ticketed Olympic site, most of whom seem to disappear out of town by car in a mass exodus at about 1700. In addition, the free live screen area on the beach has reportedly seen around 2,000 people a day, though it feels like a lot less to me – multiple visits by some of the same people maybe?

If correct, from last weekend until the final main Olympics medal race next weekend that could accrue to 80,000 visits. According to official statistics, the last Weymouth Carnival recorded 100,000 visitors.

I had a chat to some people running local businesses yesterday and they were telling me that there’s been much moaning that visitor numbers are lower than usual for summer and that the sailing fans aren’t coming into town and buying. My feeling is that they may be right on both counts.

So does that make the Weymouth sailing Olympics a flop?

Not, I think, if you see it in context. It’s about realistic expectations.

The town and organisers have done a top job. Weymouth looks great.

We’ve been lucky with the weather so far and a visit here is an excellent family day out. The sailing Olympics is showing Weymouth off to its best. There’s no litter or trouble, and the feeling is fun and friendly here. I recommend a visit whether you have a ticket or not.

But here’s the thing: if anyone thought that dinghy racing, Olympic or not, was going to bring mega-crowds to Weymouth – and in a recession – they were dreaming. This is the niche end of a very niche sport.

How many people other than families, teams and media came to watch the Sail for Gold Regatta when there were 700-odd world class competitors racing in this same area? 50 people? 100? I’d be amazed if there were more than that.

Unfortunately, few people watch dinghy racing other than close family. Yacht racing of any type besides epic round the world events has a relatively small following. Sailing is a participation sport.

So what Weymouth is seeing is the usual number of family seaside visitors – though possibly some have been put off by the warning of crowds – plus a smaller number of sailing fans or people interested in the once-in-a-lifetime Olympic sparkle.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a success. For the town, it’s a terrific promotion. The same for sailing: it is probably the best showcase possible for Olympic sailing. Instead of operating out of a sterile marina it is gilded by the charm of seaside Weymouth.