Golf is the ideal socially distanced sport and fairways saw record footfall following the first lockdown. Now, with operators and tourist boards chipping in, golf holidays look set to have a healthy future, writes Peter Ellegard
As England goes back into lockdown and the other home nations clamp down to tackle surging coronavirus numbers, there is one sector chomping at the bit to travel again – golfers. Since domestic golf courses reopened when restrictions were eased at the beginning of summer following the first wave, fairways have seen record footfall while golf clubs have seen a surge in membership.
That has been mirrored in other countries, and Peter Walton, CEO of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO), says it bodes well for the future. “The record rounds being played this summer in the UK, USA and beyond do not just reflect golf club members playing more rounds but are also the result of golf being recognised as an incredibly ‘safe’ outdoor activity in which to participate,” he says. “So, we have seen lapsed golfers return and beginner golfers sign up. This is bound to have a positive impact on golf travel in 2021 and further forward.”
“There is absolutely no drop in the intentions of golfers to travel, with even more planning to travel when they consider it safe to do so than was even the case in 2019,” Walton stresses. “So, there is no doubt that golf travel will rebound hard and fast when the conditions allow.”
That desire to play overseas manifested itself when travel corridors were opened up with some countries, sparking a boom in golf holidays. “Portugal was a prime example of business bouncing back, even if for a short period of time,” says Your Golf Travel’s head of European product, Neil Crossland, adding that Cyprus, Greece and the Canary Islands also had positive take-up, although travel windows were often closed as quickly as they opened.
While there had been some cancellations from people who did not want to travel, the operator saw “a large number of clients deferring their holidays to 2021 and a significant number of clients who were determined to play and get away for their golf break, who simply transferred from a foreign booked holiday to a UK golf break”. Crossland says that has been a positive for its UK suppliers throughout the summer and autumn, with “some truly astonishing numbers travelling and enjoying home-grown courses”.
He acknowledges that there is nervousness from clients about travelling in the early part of 2021, but sees more confidence for next September and October. “We can sense from clients their frustration of missing out on their annual trips and we are expecting a surge once we are in a position to travel with fewer restrictions and safety procedures in place and fully tested. This is where the confidence will come from.”
As for which destinations will bounce back quicker, Your Golf Travel is already seeing demand for new and deferred bookings to golf hotspots such as the Algarve, Costa del Sol, Belek in Turkey and northern France. The operator is working with several resorts to run a ‘Golf Happy’ promotion offering in-resort credit of up to €750, depending on group size numbers. Partners include Spain’s La Manga, Costa Navarino in Greece and Dom Pedro Hotels in the Algarve.
Tourist boards are also stepping up to the plate by offering assistance to the golf travel industry. The Algarve Tourism Bureau is covering the cost of golf bag carriage for up to 2,500 golfers booking a minimum five-night golf trip there with partner tour operators for travel before next April. Andalucia and the Costa del Sol are planning to refund medical and repatriation costs for visitors who come down with Covid-19 while holidaying in the region, while other organisations offering extra help to operators include the Moroccan National Tourist Office and Italy Golf and More.
IAGTO created an online Covid-19 Recovery Hub in July to give member and non-member golf courses and hotels around the world a platform to respond to the crisis and convey up-to-date information to its 2,700 members worldwide that include 725 specialist golf tour operators in 62 countries.
The coronavirus crisis could have a silver lining for tour operators. Andalucia Tourist Board golf manager Manuel Ortega believes many golfers who previously booked directly with resorts and airlines will now go to tour operators to ensure their travel plans are fully covered. “They will not have that security if they book directly,” he adds. Tim Worrell, product and sales manager for trade-only golf tour operator Tee The World, expects a rise in bookings for on-site golf villas and apartments as clients look for more spacious and safe environments once they can travel again.
The Bristol-based company also saw a flurry of late bookings to destinations when travel corridors were open, among them Portugal, Turkey, Madeira, Cyprus and the Canary Islands, with some people switching to UK golf resorts.
“We have probably had a 50/50 split of people transferring bookings forward or asking for refunds,” says Worrell. “I think a lot of those that have taken refunds will be back to rebook. Forward bookings are for the usual favourites of Turkey, Spain and Portugal, but we also have some to the Middle East and South Africa.
“For next year, we think Europe will remain strong in the short term and destinations chosen may well be governed by corridors. Long-haul we hope will bounce back around Easter, but, depending on the destination, could be further into the future.”
Worrell adds: “Golf is one of the easier activities for social distancing and can be enjoyed safely without too many changes – we have found that golfers are generally very keen to get away and are probably more resilient than the general leisure market.”
I was able to get away to Tuscany in early October, visiting TUI-owned Toscana Resort Castelfalfi for the opening of its new, luxury golf clubhouse – my first and likely only overseas golf trip of 2020. Italy will certainly be on my list once more when we can travel freely, and safely, for golf again, as I’m sure it will be for many other golfers as interest in the destination grows ahead of Rome staging the delayed Ryder Cup in 2023.
The Costa del Sol is set to get plenty of exposure after the recent announcement that the women’s equivalent tournament, the Solheim Cup, will take place at Finca Cortesin in 2023. The resort has just been named Spain’s Leading Sports Resort and Spain’s Best Golf Hotel in the 2020 World Golf Awards. Meanwhile, Japan will showcase its top-notch but little-known golf product when it hosts the Olympic Games next summer, a year late, with men’s and women’s golf medals up for grabs.
There’s a lot to look forward to in the world of golf travel in 2021 and beyond.
(Main image credit: Castelfalfi by Georg Roske)