To open the golf tourism column, I used as my base a reflection on what has happened to the sector over the last 18 months or so in Southern Africa.
Locally golf rounds are up (an interesting phenomenon, which is being experienced globally), so some of the local lockdown level pain, in terms of lost rounds’ revenues, has been eased by this surge on to the country’s golf courses.
Golfers are certainly travelling locally (what other choice do they have?), but the uncertainties around international travel continue to linger.
Although it might seem as if there is still no end in sight to many, I sense a developing optimism, so I shared this sense with several golf travel industry insiders, from across the spectrum, to see if my impression aligned with theirs.
The panel is made up of a mix of hotel GMs, golf GMs, media and marketers, and their comments were as follows:
Samantha Croft – Tsogo Sun KwaZulu Natal Regional Operations Director
“We are cautiously optimistic that the very worst is over, but anticipate a slow uptick in the numbers of international leisure travellers from the end of the first quarter onwards.
“Of course, everyone’s crystal balls are now thoroughly cracked! But if Omicron continues to prove to be less of a health threat than the previous variants (albeit more transmissible), then we have reason to be more optimistic than at any other time since the onset of the pandemic, and as we go into 2022.
“It will be interesting to see how the landscape changes in terms of the types of travellers and what they ‘want’ in a vacation sense. I recall Dermot Synott (Destination Golf Travel Magazine) in a Business of Golf Magazine article stating that early indications were that golf travellers were looking to extend the time of their vacations to get more value from the airfare, and that they would be buying up to four-star and five-star properties, because the health protocols were perceived to be ‘better’ at these types of venues.”
Peter Dros – Marketing and Sales Director at Fancourt on the Garden Route
“We have reason to be more optimistic than at any other time during the pandemic as we go into 2022. This is because a sense of pragmatism is coming into play, which largely hinges on the need to live with and manage the virus, as opposed to just trying to shut it out and ourselves in.
“That said, we are very grateful for the incredible support we have received from our domestic market, and we have had a very busy season along the Garden Route, which we all desperately needed.
“On the international front, we shall need to be patient – again!
“The new COVID variant is raging in our key source markets, but I do believe, as per the previous waves, that business will bounce back quicker than we expect, but it will all be about timing.
“As we stand, flights and uncertainties around quarantine and PCR tests remain our biggest challenge.
“The hotels are ready, the travellers are ready to go, and so it is just a case of having clarity on process and procedures.”
Low demand will continue to ensure great value and special offers, so if ever the time was right to find a good deal, it is now!
“On a slightly different note, I read a very interesting article by Forbes Travel and I quote: ‘As our world came to a full stop this year, we looked in the mirror to reflect on how we can best empower our guests to travel responsibly and become agents of positive change. And we realized that to reimagine travel post-2020, we needed to reinvent ourselves first, so we updated our offering to highlight more local and diverse voices.’
“This really rings true for us at Fancourt, and we have had to re-look at our product offering and procedures, to ensure that our guests feel safe and comfortable, but also to ensure that we can meet and manage their expectations from a golfing and hotel perspective.
“Budgets have also been cut, and we need to maximise returns from the available resources as a matter of course.
“As result of these factors, we have had to tweak the way we sell and market to our trade partners, as well as to our direct consumers, and select our audiences to ensure that we get our best ROI on all our initiatives.”
Malcom Bone – GM Sabi River Sun Golf Resort in Hazyview in Mpumalanga
“We are really looking forward to 2022 and, provided no new ‘unplayable’ variants come over the horizon, I feel that we are now approaching a point where we can live with the virus, as opposed to the merry-go-round of closed borders and lockdowns.
“Structurally we are in great shape. We revamped the golf course in 2019/2020 and we have good rains although we could now do with a little more sun (all of which means that the changes have bedded in beautifully, and the course looks fantastic).
“Our hotel eagerly anticipates bookings from golfers who have not, as yet, had the opportunity to test their swings on our wonderful golf course!”
Dermot Synnott – CEO and Co-founder of Destination Golf Travel Magazine
“We are nearing the ‘end’ I feel, but there will still be potholes to be negotiated as we go forward.
“My overriding sense is that the travel landscape has been changed irrevocably. This will include travellers (using commercial flights), expecting much less downtime with admin and the like i.e., they will be looking for a more seamless travel experience.
“Indications are that already golf travellers are looking to stay away for longer, and that they are ‘buying up’ for what they see to be better health processes, rightly or wrongly, at higher star hotel units.
“Movements within a vacation might well change too, as per Peter Dros’s comments about people creating one venue as a base/bubble, and then travelling out from there and returning to the same venue each night.
“The pandemic trend, which saw an increase in the popularity of staycations and vacations closer to home (using a car or rail as a transport mode), which developed out of necessity might also continue to develop and grow.”
Damian Wrigley – GM of Pearl Valley Country Club at Val de Vie Estate in South Africa’s Western Cape
“We have felt the absence of our international guests, but saw the return this year of many of our international residents, some whom we had not seen for over two years.
“The uncertainties around the travel protocols, combined with a revolving door of opening and shutting borders, meant that making travel plans with any type of certainty was well-nigh impossible.
“The local upsurge in interest in golf was certainly a bonus, as you commented, and we are striving to make sure that these gains are retained, nurtured and further developed.
“Our product is looking good, with a right sizing of staff and a move out of the COVID business model.
“The golf course has been busy right through the year, with the club not really experiencing a low season, which has put some additional pressure on the course, but it is holding up well.
“We have every reason to be more optimistic than at any time since early 2020, although I don’t see this transferring into any significant volumes of international ‘feet’ until the third quarter of 2022, but the booking trends will be a good indicator of how the market feels about coming back to us and when.”
John Aritho – GM of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Umhlanga
“We can be hopeful that 2022 will see the return of significant numbers of international travellers, but it has been a bumpy ride.
“We are also keen to start marketing our new Golf Staycations product, which has been developed with you and the Business of Golf, so we are optimistic, which is never a bad thing over New Year.
“The local numbers at the Beverly Hills have been very good in 2020 and 2021, as many domestic travellers sought a local holiday destination rather than risk the various variant outbreaks and the dangers they posed to travel, flights and entry into various countries.
“I do not foresee any hangover from the July 2021 unrest in KwaZulu Natal, and it has been interesting to see British inbound travel and holiday makers taking time during December and January to explore the multitude of great golf courses in and around Durban.
“Bloomberg recently published the ‘Where to Go in 2022’ and it was very encouraging to see KwaZulu Natal making the list for 2022, with a rather interesting link between Omicron and a holiday destination, which read: ‘The unsung, malaria-free safari region halfway between Johannesburg and Durban in South Africa accidentally wound up in the spotlight when the Omicron variant was first sequenced in its nearby research labs – less an indication of relative risk than the trailblazing scientific contributions under way here’.”