2002: Experts expect travel recovery

The British Open is regarded as a great test of golf skill and savvy, and a tournament that attracts the very best players in the world. But this year it served as a barometer of another sort, as people used it to measure the willingness and ability of tourists to travel far and wide at a time when security and economic concerns remain abnormally high. And what they found is that golfers have indeed backed off.

“The most surprising thing to me was that the Saturday before the Open Championship at Muirfield we actually had empty spaces on the ballot to play the Old Course in St. Andrews,” says Peter Mason, external relations director for the St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages that hallowed track. “Anyone could have walked up that afternoon and gotten onto the Old Course, and that is extraordinarily unusual.”

Just as unusual, says Gordon Dalgleish, founder and president of high-end tour operator Perry Golf, was all the available hotel space in Edinburgh during the tournament.

“Two years ago, when the Championship was at St. Andrews, you could not get a room in that city,” he says. “But this year, there were still openings at places like the Balmoral and the Caledonian, real deluxe mainstay hotels. It just seems that fewer people decided to make the trip.”

And that, for the most part, seems to be the story of golf travel for much of the past 12 months. Numbers are down, and courses and hotels in the vast majority of cases are emptier than in the past.

To be sure, there are exceptions, such as Bandon Dunes, the southern Oregon retreat that actually saw business pick up when folks decided they would rather drive than fly for their 2002 golf vacations. And keep in mind that those who like to play the royal and ancient game are generally a seasoned, well-heeled bunch of travelers who are less inclined than most to feel the pinch of a recession or submit to the fear of a terrorist’s threat.

“Overall, our visitor rounds are off 8 percent at all our St. Andrews courses,” says Mason, referring to the five 18-hole courses and one nine-hole layout the Links Trust runs.

Dalgleish, who specializes in organizing golf tours to the British Isles, has seen much the same thing.

“We went through something like five years of having annual growth in the 15 to 20 percent range, and you get to the point where you don’t think it is ever going to end,” he says. “Then we had the problems in the United Kingdom with hoof-and-mouth disease in the spring of 2001, and after that 9/11 and the economy.

“I’d say that in March 2001, we were on track for another year of 15 percent growth. But the impact of hoof-and-mouth made it flat after that. Then came 9/11, and we went down 7 percent for the rest of the year. For 2002, we are off 10 percent from that, and I happen to think we are doing pretty well. I know hotels in Scotland, for example, that are down as much as 30 percent, and one golf shop in St. Andrews is off 70 percent.”

Bill Jones III, chairman and chief executive officer of the sumptuous Sea Island resort on the southern Georgia coast, has experienced significant falloff as well, even though the three courses at his historic retreat are quite accessible by car.

“The immediate impact from 9/11 was tremendous for us, and business was off something like 20 percent through the first two weeks of February,” he says. “Then, it was like someone turned on the spigot, and from that point to the present, we are only off 5 to 7 percent from the previous year.”

In Jones’ view, the effects of Sept. 11 were felt through February.

“Beyond that, I think things are more economic-related,” he says. “And that’s been mostly with corporate group travel. That area has cut back some, but our family business, which makes up some 65 percent of our total operations, has been very strong. I think that’s partly because people have wanted to be together through these difficult times. There has been more focus on family and on doing things with each other.”

As for the future, anecdotal evidence points to a full recovery.

“We are relatively encouraged by what we have been seeing over the summer,” Dalgleish says. “We are looking strong for 2003, and I think a lot of that is pent-up demand and a greater comfort level with travel.”







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