2001: Golf travel different, but viable
By Chris Hodenfield
At Pebble Beach and the Old Course at St. Andrews in recent weeks, golfers have discovered a most unusual situation. In the midst of perfect early-autumn weather, any old duffer can stroll up to the starter’s window and get a tee time.
Never have so many wandering golfers been met with such gratitude in the eyes of their hosts. Across the water in Hawaii, a state built on tourism, the entire economy has been devastated by massive layoffs. It’s no better all across the Caribbean, where room occupancy at golf resorts has plummeted to 20 percent of capacity. In the United Kingdom, hotel managers, who took a heavy hit after the hoof-and-mouth disease last spring are now in a state of shock.
It’s not just the stricken airlines who would like a bailout. Travel agents, car-rental firms, bartenders, kids in the cart barn, everyone is wondering when business will get back to normal. Travel and tourism, the third-largest sales industry in America, is reeling.
“The U.S.A. is traumatized right now,” said Paddy O’Looney of Ireland’s Swing Golf, in a position paper written for his cohorts, “and there is little break in the media on the aftermath of September 11.”
Said Bill Hogan of Wide World Golf: “People are not calling to cancel their trips, but they are not calling to book new trips.”
In the present atmosphere of wait-and-see, many people have assumed this could be a good time to swoop down on bargains offered by anxious travel marketers. One Caribbean tour operator did in fact say, “If you’re not discounting now, you’re out of your mind.” And you might get reduced pricing in Hawaii. But do not assume too much. Given that hotels are slashing staff, management often is less inclined to reduce the rate than to offer extras – a free round of golf, say, or a sailing expedition, or possibly an extra day’s stay. Anyone booking a trip now should at least inquire about specials.
Neither should anybody expect airlines to suddenly offer sweet deals, even if the proposed bailout provides them relief. Air fares are likely to rise 25 percent to 40 percent in 2002, according to many tour operators, because of security costs and an overall decreased capacity. Most airlines, including American, TWA, United, Northwest and USAirways recently have reduced flight schedules by at least 20 percent, and many routes have been abandoned.
Other civilities are being lost, too, although curbside check-in slowly is being restored at some airports. Starting next month the in-flight “meal” will be gone, except for business- and first-class passengers on transcontinental flights.
Americans tend generally to be skittish about world travel when serious international problems arise. After the Persian Gulf War of 1991, American tourism did not return to pre-war travel levels until 1994. However, the early ’90s economy was in the throes of recession and a weak dollar. (Despite current circumstances, the dollar generally has been holding firm lately).
“The American traveler has become more resilient ,” said tour maven Jerry Quinlan, who runs Jerry Quinlan’s Celtic Golf in New Jersey. “We’ve been through this a few times now.”
“The golf traveler is far more stoic than the average blue-haired lady,” said David Bryce, president of the American Association of Golf Tour Operaters. “Even by September 13 and 14 we had people demanding to get on flights. It just goes to show the power of golf.”
Activity at Web sites such as www.travelgolf.com shows an increased interest in “drive- to” golf areas, such as Scottsdale and Myrtle Beach. But the resort golf scene in America, already chilled by the icy fingers of a recession, has been dealing with another perplexing issue this year: There is almost too much high-end resort and daily-fee golf. Hundreds of new golf courses have been built to an economic scale suitable to another time.
But the news hasn’t been entirely glum in the golf travel scene. Americans who hurriedly canceled their golf vacations after the terror strike were able to get refunds (“Scotland, predictably, was less in a hurry to return fares,” sniffed one tour operator). More than 60 percent decided to rebook next year. And those travelers who did continue on to long-dreamed-of trips to Europe in recent weeks found themselves received in an unusually warm embrace.
“Some of our group walked into pubs in Ireland and couldn’t buy a drink,” said Quinlan. “People wanted to take care of the Americans.”
For international tours, Hogan thinks the “traditional safe havens” such as New Zealand and Canada suddenly will appear more desirable to American travelers. Emerging golf hot spots such as Egypt and Dubai must now, to put it charitably, prepare to negotiate on price.
– Visit www.smarterliving.com or www.expedia.com to check for airfare bargains.