DGT: Golf tourism – Where to from here?


DGT: Golf tourism – Where to from here?

Article by John Cockayne, DGT SAIO Editor.

To open this golf tourism discussion, I used as my base a reflection on what has happened to the sector over the last 18 months or so.

Locally golf rounds are up (an interesting phenomenon, which is being experienced globally and in all probability a bubble), so some of the local lockdown level pain, in terms of lost rounds’ revenues, has been eased by this surge onto many countries golf courses.

Golfers are certainly travelling more locally (what other choice have they had!), but the uncertainties, and negative perceptions around international travel continue to linger, rather like a bad smell.

Although it might seem as if there is still no end in sight to many, I sense a developing optimism, so I shared this sense with several golf travel industry insiders, from across the spectrum, to see if the optimism was completely out of focus!

The panel is made up of a mix of hotel GM’s, golf GM’s, media and marketers and their comments were as follows;

John Aritho – GM at Beverly Hills Hotel in Umhlanga:
We can be hopeful that 2022 will see the return of significant numbers of international travellers, but it has been a bumpy ride!
We are also keen to start marketing our newly Golf Staycations product, which has been developed with you and the Business of Golf, so we are optimistic which is never a bad feeling with which to start a New Year.

The local numbers at the Beverly Hills have been very good in both 2020 and 2021, as many domestic travellers sought a local holiday destination rather than risk the various variant outbreaks and the dangers it posed to travel, flights and entry into various countries.

I do not foresee any hangover from the July 2021 unrest in Kwa Zulu Natal, and it has been interesting to see British inbound travel and holiday makers taking time, during December and January to explore the multitude of great golf courses in and around Durban.

Kwa Zulu Natal as a whole, has traded strongly from a tourism perspective, due largely to its variety of affordable coastal holiday destinations and wonderfully warm clime.

Bloomberg recently published the ‘Where to Go in 2022’ and it was very encouraging to see KwaZulu-Natal making the list for 2022, with a rather interesting link between Omicron and a holiday destination, which read; “the unsung, malaria-free safari region halfway between Johannesburg and Durban in South Africa accidentally wound up in the spotlight when the omicron variant was first sequenced in its nearby research labs—less an indication of relative risk than the trailblazing scientific contributions underway here.

So, dust off the golf clubs, grab some suntan and head for the Durban for a staycation and a great start as we work into 2022.

Damian Wrigley – GM at Pearl Valley Country Club at Val de Vie Estate in South Africa’s Western Cape:

“we saw the return this year of many of our international residents, some who we had not seen for over two years!”

We have felt the absence of our overseas guests, but saw the return this year of many of our international residents, some who we had not seen for over two years!
The uncertainties around the travel protocols, combined with a revolving door of opening and shutting borders, meaning that making travel plans with any type of certainty was well-nigh impossible.

The local upsurge in interest in golf was certainly a bonus, as you commented, and we are striving to make sure that these gains are retained, nurtured and further developed. Our product is looking good, with a right-sizing of staff and a move out of the covid business model. Further to this we had good winter rains and a much milder December than usual.

The golf course has been busy right through the year, with the club not really experiencing a low season, which has put some additional pressure on the course, but it is holding up well.

We have every reason to be more optimistic than at any time since early 2020, although I don’t see this transferring into any significant volumes of international ‘feet’, until the third quarter of 2022, but the booking trends will be a good indicator of how the market feels about coming back to us and when.

Samantha Croft – Tsogo Sun Director of Operations KZN Region:
We are cautiously optimistic that the very worst is over, but anticipate a slow uptick in the numbers of international leisure travellers, from the end of the first quarter onwards.

Of course, everyone’s crystal balls are now thoroughly cracked!, but if the Omicron variant continues to prove to be less of a health threat than if predecessors (albeit more transmissible), then we have reason to be more optimistic than at any other time since the outset of the pandemic, and as we work into 2022.
Unfortunately, you were proved to be right about the fact that we would need to keep wearing face-masks for at least 2 years, so I hope that your other comment about the virus going forward proves to be correct too! If you recall you said that we must hope for a status where if we ask; “Where’s Joe”, the answer would be along the lines of “Oh he has a touch of Covid and will back in the office on Monday”.

It will be interesting to see how the landscape changes in terms of the types of travellers and what they ‘want’ in a vacation sense.

I recall Dermot Synnott (Destination Golf Travel Magazine) in a Business of Golf Magazine article stating that early indications were that golf travellers were looking to extend the time of their vacations to get more value from the airfare, and that they would be buying up to 4-star and 5-star properties, because the health protocols were perceived to be ‘better’ at these types of venues.

One way or another, it should prove to be an exciting year.

Dermot Synnott – CEO and co-founder of Destination Golf Travel Magazine:
We are nearing the ‘end’ I feel, but there will still be potholes to be negotiated as we go forward.

My overriding sense is that the travel landscape has been changed irrevocably. This will include travellers (using commercial flights), expecting much less downtime with admin and the like i.e., they will be looking for a more seamless travel experience.

Indications are that already golf travellers are looking to stay away for longer, and that they are ‘buying up’ for what they see to be better health processes, rightly or wrongly, at higher star hotel units.

Movements within a vacation might well change too, as per Peter Dros’ comments about people creating one venue as a base / bubble, and then travelling out from there and returning to the same venue each night.

The pandemic trend, which saw an increase in the popularity of staycations and vacations closer to home (using a car or rail as a transport mode), which developed out of necessity might also continue to develop and grow.

Malcom Bone – GM Sabi River Sun Golf Resort – Hazyview in Mpumalanga:

I feel that we are now approaching a point where we can live with the virus

We are really looking forward to 2022, and provided no new ‘unplayable’ variants come over the horizon, I feel that we are now approaching a point where we can live with the virus, as opposed to the merry-go-round (although it has been anything but merry!) of closed borders and lockdowns.
Structurally we are in great shape.

As you know we revamped the golf course in 2019 / 2020, and we have had good rains (not the monsoon type we got just before the delayed opening!), although we could now do with a little more sun (like most of SA!), all of which means that the changes have bedded in beautifully, and the course looks fantastic.
As the festive season rush subsides, our hotel eagerly anticipates bookings from golfers who have not, as yet, had the opportunity to test their swings on our wonderful ‘new’ golf course!

Robert Jasper – GM, at the Tsogo Sun Sandton Sun and Sandton Towers hotels:
It has been a long road, and in Gauteng we still have units mothballed, as a result of the drop off in traffic, locally, regionally and internationally.
Are we through with the virus – I don’t think so, at least not quite yet!

I recall an article you wrote about 600 odd people dying of the Bubonic Plague (a disease known more commonly as the Black Death, which decimated medieval Europe) in Mongolia in late 2019.

The point you made was clear – these types of diseases are not cured, and will not go away, but history shows us that they can be managed and the effects mitigated.

So, to my sense for what might be a ‘rephrased’ future, I would comment that structurally our units are fine, the damage done was on the bottom line.
In answer to the question ‘what does the future hold’, it is a question of whether we at the end of the beginning, or at the beginning of the end (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), so I am not quite sure.

However, I am optimistic in the sense of how we are managing how we live with the virus, instead of just reacting to it, as this will become key to a long-term solution, and the indicators are that we are now starting to do this.

By John Cockayne, DGT SAIO Editor.