Golf tourism on rise in Ireland
The American love of golf has created a new form of Irish business
To their credit however, administrators of the game got together to review the situation and sort out a cohesive marketing plan. They saw how they could accommodate visitors by
opening off-peak playing hours to non-members. The income from green tees would defray running costs and visitors got to play. Whether the move was prompted by goodwill or business acumen it has certainly paid off. In a game notoriously unforgiving on close calls, it was a win-win situation.
Local clubs set up regional associations to promote their interests abroad. It was Denis Brosnan's idea modeled on the way the Kerry Group was formed, explains Paddy O'Looney, chief-executive of Southwest Ireland Golf Ltd. (SWING). When he brought the milk co-ops in Kerry under one umbrella they became a force to be reckoned with. He applied the same principle to golf tourism.
SWING was formed in 1988, incorporating nine clubs Lahinch, Ballybunion, Waterville, Dromoland, Dooks, Killarney, Shannon, Tralee and Dingle and pooling resources to cultivate a growing overseas market. Clubs around the country formed similar marketing groups such as West Coast Links, IGTOA, Green Isle Golf, Shannon Golf Partnership and others to make their own pitch for business in an increasingly competitive and profitable arena.
But there was no point luring tourists if facilities weren't here for them. At national level Bórd Fáilte's Operational Program for Tourism (1989) provided £9 million in funds to develop new pay-and-play' clubs as well as encourage established clubs to open up for tourists. A second tranche (1994-99) completed the agency's structural development of golf tourism.
We're putting Ireland up there to make us the Number One destination in Europe, contends Damien Ryan. One of the biggest pluses for us now is we have a lot of commercial courses here, which makes it more accessible than with member clubs.
The profile of visitors has changed dramatically, confirms Alan Reardon at Lahinch. At the start of the 90's Irish visitors made up about 48 percent of our business; that's now down to eight percent. The market spread is now 80 percent American.
The same shift is reflected nationally. Golfers from Britain make up about half of those who come to Ireland to play but the American share has grown to almost 35 percent, many of whom play premium courses. In tourism-speak they are valued as high-yield guests.' A high ratio of repeat business suggests the visitors get exactly what they come for.
It's a game where tradition runs deep. Golfers everywhere love to try the famous old courses and in Ireland they go for Royal Dublin (est. 1885), Lahinch, Royal Portrush, Portmarnock, Royal County Down, Old Head of Kinsale, Balmoral and Woodbrook.
Lahinch itself dates back to 1892 when Limerick businessman Alexander Shaw deemed the coastal sand hills an ideal site to set up a course. He then built with the assistance of Scottish officers from the Black Watch Regiment, and the first game was played on Good Friday, April 15 that same year. To commemorate the occasion the West Clare Railway put on a special train in order to give persons an opportunity to view the game and enjoy the sea air.