JUDGING from the fact that four of the top seven at the recent US Masters were European, it would appear that everything in the golfing garden is quite rosy at the moment. Messrs. Rose, McIlroy, Casey and Poulter certainly did the old world’s reputation no harm as they trailed in behind Jordan Spieth. But in the bigger picture, the state of European golf is less healthy than such a good showing might imply – and that could spell trouble for the golf industry along Spain’s Costa del Golf.
Anyone who had their money riding on Rory McIlroy running away with the Masters will have been left counting the cost, and the same may yet prove to be true for those who have invested in the tourist golf industry along Spain’s southern shore. In the UK the game is undergoing a serious contraction. Player numbers are dwindling and courses are closing and the inevitable knock-on is that golf tourists are less numerous than they would have been expected to be only a few short years ago.
Needless to say, it is in the UK and Ireland that the game is most popular. But with money short in recent years, and the pressure on working people’s time more intense than ever before, golf is seen as a pastime that sets the bar too high for the mass market. It has been described as too expensive, too time consuming and too difficult for youngsters to master.
One result is that where once the more prestigious – not to say better – courses around the UK were jealously guarded enclaves of exclusivity, they are now having to adopt a very different approach. Domestic golf packages, attractive visitor fees and so on are now as much a part of the UK tourist industry as anything taking place in Spain. Given the relative ease of access to these courses, the three or four-day ‘golf-break’ which is a staple of the Spanish and Portuguese markets is facing stiff competition from the UK’s domestic market – especially Scotland.
Once you add in the counter attractions of the developing golf industry on the other side of the Straights of Gibraltar – notably in Morocco and Tunisia – Spanish providers could be forgiven for thinking that they have found themselves in a tight spot. At the top end of the market, the rise of Dubai as a golfing destination is a further complication.
Happily, the German economy is sufficiently robust that any decline in British tourist numbers is being ameliorated by increasing numbers of German visitors. As a reflection of the changing character of the stereotypical golf tourist, Minister of Tourism Luciano Alonso recently announced a €63,000 plan to specifically boost Andalucia’s golfing appeal to the German market. There are some 840 clubs in Germany with a combined membership of more than 650,000 players and it is these regular players whom the initiative is aimed at.
Inevitably, a different constituency of golfers, with different tastes and different linguistic requirements will mean that some adjustment (and expense) is called for. German speaking golf professionals, for example, are suddenly quite sought after.
Up until 2010, the number of golfers in Europe was rising steadily, with the emerging economies of Eastern Europe adding to the sport’s more traditional hotbeds. But since the turn of the decade the level of participation has started to decline. The danger in that is that much of the investment that poured into the Costa Del Golf – as it has become known in certain circles – was predicated on the continuing expansion of the sport and a corresponding over-demand for the sort of warm weather, luxury golfing experience that the Costa has to offer.
What it means in the short term is that Spain’s tourist industry is going to have to work harder and more imaginatively in order to make the commercial cut. Setting their sights on the German market looks like just the right sort of initiative.