A familiar sight at any Irish airport is that of golf bags being unloaded from carousels onto baggage trolleys. And with good reason, for the numbers of inward golfing tourists – mainly from North America – has remained constant at more than 200,000, contributing in excess of €270 million to the Irish economy annually.
Where are they going? Well, the truth of the matter is that the iconic links courses remain the main draw, pulling them like a magnet would iron filings. “They’re buzzing when they arrive, anxious to hit the links as quickly as they possibly can,” remarked Maurice O’Meara of Discover Ireland Golf Tours, observing that such golfing tourists want to pack as much golf into their stay as possible, the majority opting for escorted tours with drivers.
These are high-end tourists, with Fáilte Ireland data confirming that golf visitors typically spend three times more than the average tourist and account for over 1.7 million bed nights. Indeed, the average spend of a golf tourist is put at €2,000 during their stay, with some 80 per cent of that going on non-golf related activity in the hospitality sector.
“The US is one of our most important markets for golf tourism, and the North American market alone makes up 47 per cent of the total number of tourists who come to Ireland on a golfing holiday,” said Fáilte Ireland chief executive Paul Kelly.
The flip side of the success of Ireland as a golfing destination is that green fees at the so-called iconic courses have increased – with the Old Head, one of the most in-demand, set to have a green fee rate of €375 in 2020 – while the simple fact of the matter is that demand is outstripping supply of available tee-times at many of the leading links courses, with many operators required to book up to a year in advance if they are to secure time slots for their clients.
They all want to play the iconic courses, but we ensure that for every iconic course that they also take in others
In effect, the challenge for those involved in the golf tourism industry is to ensure that more courses – many of them critical in the past that they were being left out of the loop, so to speak – get a slice of the financial pie. This was evidenced in the aftermath of the British Open at Royal Portrush, where a group of US media people were taken off the well-worn paths to take in the likes of Cruit Island, Narin and Portnoo and Murvagh in Donegal, Rosses Point in Co Sligo and Concra Wood in Co Monaghan among others, in an effort to show the depth and spread of courses available. There is a genuine effort among those tasked with marketing golf tourism to get the message across that there is a wide choice of courses spread right around the island.
“This is something from our end that we have adopted, to make sure that that travelling media get to see what we can offer. They all want to play the iconic courses, but we ensure that for every iconic course that they also take in others. It is something we are very conscious of, is the spread in regionality terms . . . to strike a balance in [promoting] other courses, not just the iconics,” said Rory Mathews, golf tourism executive with Fáilte Ireland.
That is a challenge, though, because the bucket-list courses which many of the high-end American visitors want to tick include the Old Heads, Portmarnocks, Royal County Downs, Ballybunions, Royal Portrushes . . . and add Lahinch to that list, because the success of the DDF Irish Open at the Co Clare course has witnessed an increased demand, aided by the fact that the tournament was televised live on the Golf Channel in the United States.
"We worked hard with our colleagues in Tourism Ireland to make [the live coverage on the Golf Channel] happen and it paid off. The audience figures were colossal, beamed into tens of millions of homes across the States," acknowledged Kelly, who points out that "the spread of golf courses around the country offers a significant opportunity to drive tourism growth outside of the better-known tourist hotspots . . . the holidaying golfer is a key priority for us."
Our key priority is spreading the footprint and benefits of tourism across the whole country
Unquestionably, the success of Irish golfers internationally has increased the awareness of Ireland as a golfing destination, and the appeal for inbound golfing tourists, according to O’Meara, who has been involved in the golf industry for a number of decades, is the quality of the product. “They mainly want the full links experience but it is all about service and also that added factor of the craic that they experience here.”
Certainly, it is not for the sunshine that golf tourists are attracted to these shores. It is the quality of the courses ultimately that is the big draw; and hammering home the message that there are hidden gems that sparkle just as brightly as any of the iconics is increasingly part of formal campaigns.
“Our key priority is spreading the footprint and benefits of tourism across the whole country. Ireland is home to a third of the world’s links courses and, with many of these in areas which have the capacity to host more international visitors, we believe that golf is an important driver in attracting more visitors to the regions,” said Paul Mockler, Fáilte Ireland’s head of commercial development.