Irish golf tourism falls…

This story, taken from the website, presents a pretty bleak picture for golf tourism in Ireland. Note the figure about golf tourism falling by half over the past five years, mainly from the UK. That said, Scotland’s courses were pretty quiet as well when I was there for two trips in the last two years.

Golf crisis looming
Sunday December 12th 2004

A CRISIS is looming in Irish golf. Through a combination of over supply and weak tourist figures, the situation is especially acute in the east of the country, where facilities are already experiencing difficulties.

Cost-cutting in the proprietary sector is creating fierce competition for members’ clubs, which had developed a dependence on green-fee traffic in recent years. And the situation overall has been exacerbated by the smoking ban and a greater adherence to the drink-driving laws.

All of which means that certain members’ clubs in Dublin are looking at the stark option of either enlarging their membership base, or slapping increases of up to 20 per cent on the annual subscription. And in some cases it’s even doubtful if increased membership would offer a solution, given the growing resistance to five-figure entrance fees.

So it appears that the old, pre-EEC notion of Ireland contracting pneumonia if Britain caught a cold, still has some validity where golf is concerned. For instance, a recent survey for the English Golf Union showed that there were 46,690 membership vacancies last year and that 75 per cent of English clubs were actively seeking members.

Even the home of golf is suffering. According to a recent story in The Times, many Scottish clubs have had little choice but to open their doors because of dwindling membership and declining interest. And it seems that new converts to the Royal and Ancient game have upset traditionalists because of the little time they spend having a dram at the 19th hole.

There has also been criticism that visiting players from Japan and the US behave like “car-park golfers”, limiting their patronage to the course and never setting a foot in the clubhouse.

It is a dramatically different situation from that envisaged by the Royal and Ancient in their document “The Demand for Golf”, which was published in 1989. Among other things, they set what was viewed as an ambitious target of having at least one facility for every 25,000 inhabitants in these islands by the year 2000. This target was set against ratios of 1:12,000 in Scotland, 1:10,000 in Australia and 1:20,000 on the Eastern Seaboard of the US at that time.

The figures quoted for Northern Ireland in the report make interesting reading. With 58 golf clubs in 1988 for a population of 1.58 million, our brethren north of the border had a ratio of 1:27,259, which meant that an increase of 15.5 per cent was desirable by the millennium. In fact the increase was 57 per cent which, given the current number of 94 clubs, has since risen to a whopping increase of 82 per cent, producing a ratio of 1:17,000.

Meanwhile, the number of facilities in the Republic has snowballed from 202 in 1988 to a current 316 – an increase of 56 per cent. In the process, the ratio of facilities per head of population has come down from 1:16,600 to a current 1:11,400.

The big change in course construction during that period was in the proliferation of proprietary establishments, triggered to a considerable degree by EU farming quotas. For instance, between 1987 and 1994, more than half the 129 new clubs launched in this country were proprietary. And the total of 410 affiliated clubs for the whole of the island in 2004 will be increased to 413 when the GUI hold their AGM next February.

Donal Flinn, general manager of Druids Glen, brought the situation sharply into focus by pointing out: “When we opened in the autumn of 1995, our main rivals, geographically, were Mount Juliet and The K Club. Now we have a second course (Druids Heath), so have The K Club and there is the addition of two courses at Carton House, a second one at Powerscourt and the new Heritage facility, all seeking the same business. That’s six additional courses, which make it a very tough market.”

Against the background of grim reports from the UK, it is revealing to note from Fáilte Ireland that there has been a 47 per cent drop in golfing visitors here from 1999 to 2003. And the greatest decrease – of 53 per cent – was from the UK.

As it happened, a number of Irish club representatives converged on Lisbon last week for the annual get-together of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. Fáilte Ireland had a stand there and, predictably, the gathering included a strong presence from proprietary clubs including Adare Manor, Carton House, City West, Dromoland Castle, Druids Glen, Glasson, Mount Juliet, Mount Wolseley, Powerscourt, Ring of Kerry, The K Club, The Heritage, Rathsallagh and Portmarnock Links. And a number of members’ clubs were also represented through established marketing organisations, SWING and North and West Coast Links.

Yet one Irish club official pointed to the fact that only about 10 per cent of Irish courses were represented there. As he put it: “You will generally see the same faces at these events every year.”

Continental European operators seemed decidedly upbeat about the prospects for 2005, but their mood was tempered somewhat by an awareness of increasing competition.

For instance, newcomers Tunisia and Turkey have been making their presence felt, with an emphasis on price and climate. While the general feeling was that they were certain to take business from Spain and Portugal, my Irish informant expressed a fear that they would also corner some of the UK business which has departed from these shores.

“Looking towards next year, it is clear that the Irish picture is not as healthy as we would like it to be,” he said. “We cannot escape the fact that there is an obvious over-supply of facilities which will continue to make life difficult for us.”

Though owners and club officials are putting a brave face on things, it is clear that financially vulnerable establishments could face closure, unless there is a significant upturn in the tourist market. And quickly.

Dermot Gilleece


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