It was a great summer for golf and tourism in Nova Scotia and in particular Cape Breton Island. The slide of the Canadian dollar and the Trump Bump helped boost the number of golfers and tourists to the Island. For those of you not familiar with the Trump Bump, it was started by a local radio host Rob Calabrese who posted on his website that if Donald Trump won the US presidential election, maybe Americans would consider moving to Cape Breton.
The comment was made in jest but the response was overwhelming with inquiries from people looking to buy property and people who actually came to visit. Many brought their golf clubs. Those who did visit got the opportunity to play or at least see internationally acclaimed Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, voted Best New Course in North America in 2015 by Golf Digest. Both courses, located in Inverness on the Island’s west coast, were humming all summer. They were so busy in fact that General Manager Andrew Alkenbrack said during peak times golfers were turned away and Cabot plans to hire an additional 60 caddies for next season. The two courses have continued to garner accolades from both repeat and new players from a number of countries.
And what the Cabot development has done for the local economy has been documented in several publications. Cabot filled its on-site accommodations (72 rooms and 14 villas) all summer plus bolstered local employment, encouraged business in local restaurants, gas stations and numerous accommodations properties within a large radius of the town. Andrew told me that there are five more villas now being built and will be ready for 2017. As a note of interest on Cabot’s popularity, the villas were all sold before they were even finished. About two hours past Cabot on the Cabot Trail, Highlands Links and Keltic Lodge in Ingonish Beach, which were taken over by Ontario company GolfNorth last year under a long-term lease, had one of their best years in recent memory, both at the lodge and at the golf course. Keltic General Manager Graham Hudson said the course and lodge had an incredible season. Since taking over operations, GolfNorth has spent in excess of $5 million on the Keltic Lodge property and golf course and I understand there could be more to come.
Le Portage Golf Course, located in Cheticamp between the Cabot courses and Highlands Links, also had a great summer. I had a chance to play Le Portage again this year and it is truly a gem. Club pro Patrick Laderoute told me, however, being between Cabot and the Highlands doesn’t necessarily translate into many additional rounds at his course but he anticipates that being in the middle of those two golf destinations will work to Le Portage’s benefit in the long term.
“It’s not what everybody thinks. We are sort of a hidden gem between them. It’s not negative, we are just not in the limelight like those two. We did have a lot of people pop in and say they wished they had known we were here. But we are in two pretty big shadows but we have a good product and think it is just going to take time for people to discover us,” he said.
Another Cape Breton course that literally rose from the ashes to shine in the spotlight was Bell Bay in Baddeck. The course was the site of the Mackenzie Tour event, the Cape Breton Open, formerly the Cape Breton Celtic Classic which had been previously played at The Lakes course in Ben Eoin, near Sydney. The event was scheduled for early September and in July the course lost its clubhouse and pro shop to a major fire. Eric Tobin, course general manager and Tournament Executive Director Sandy Campbell, actually one of the former owners of the course, rallied their support teams and put on an outstanding show and the event was deemed a great success. Course owner Scott MacAulay told me in an email that the course had a busy summer and there are plans to rebuild the clubhouse and pro shop. “We are in the planning process with regards to building and hope to have a start date as soon as we are able to work out some final details,” Scott said. Eric Tobin confirmed in an email the course, which turns 20 next year, hopes to have its new facilities open by mid-2017.
The bump in this year’s golf business was certainly noticed at Golf Cape Breton, the Island’s golf marketing body. GCB’s Katherine MacDonald told me “that our concierge finished the season at $416,000. We finished at $202,000 last year.” GCB’s concierge service books and confirms packages for people. “We track the value of packages/rooms/rounds that we book with our golf and accommodations’ partners,” she said. On the mainland, two high-end courses, Fox Harb’r, the beautiful resort on the Northumberland Strait and The Links at Brunello, near Halifax, voted Third Best Course in North America for 2015 by Golf Digest, both produced some good numbers. Elliott Isenor, Director of Golf Operations at Fox Harb’r said the golf resort and spa had a great year with golf rounds up 43% over last year. He said the resort had some spinoff from Cape Breton traffic but “we also helped ourselves this year with some marketing.” Miles Mortensen, General Manager at The Links at Brunello, also named to Canadian Golf Magazine’s Top 50 Best You Can Play in 2016, saw solid increases in their player programs. Mortensen said the Golf Digest accolade certainly helped boost US traveler traffic. “Destination rounds saw a double digit increase and we see the same for 2017,” he said. “In general, very, very pleased,” he added. One interesting side note, governments are seeing the benefit of the golf and tourism combination. On the golf aspect, Golf Cape Breton got $420,000 in funding for 2016-17 from the federal government’s Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency ($300,000). The province threw in $30,000 and the golf clubs $90,000 to support its marketing activities.