High-end tourism could be driven by a golf-led recovery but facilities here risk being stranded in the rough, a course designer says.
Kristine Kerr, director of Kura Golf Course Design, says golf tourism to New Zealand pre-Covid was growing, with New Zealand being viewed as an extremely desirable destination for high-net-worth international visitors.
She is a golf course architect who has worked on the design of around 40 courses, from master-planning to remodelling and design of championship courses in 12 countries including China to the Middle East, Italy and the Czech Republic, and is now back in New Zealand.
She was most recently in Saudi Arabia, where she worked on massive projects.
Golf has been a sport associated with high-end tourism to this county for around a decade with a Tourism NZ report in 2013 finding golf visitors on average spending 24 per cent more on average than other overseas holidaymakers.
Spending across all visitors in 2019, before Covid hit, was around $3400 each. Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has been promoting the value of having fewer but bigger spending visitors — echoing a push by former prime minister Sir John Key when he also held the tourism portfolio.
Kerr said golf tourism could be very important in New Zealand's tourism recovery.
"During the pandemic, NZ has received alot of attention because we've handled it so well and was seen as a fabulous safe haven and then as a reason for people to come here and do something — I think golf is significant in this."
Golf fitted one of the key aims of tourism agencies.
"Because we have courses scattered around the country there's the opportunity for different areas to receive some of that."
But most New Zealand courses needed work to appeal to international visitors, when they return.
Although the country has one of the highest number of golf courses per capita in the world, many of them are in need of a major upgrade to increase their appeal to high-end golf tourists.
"While New Zealand has an incredible legacy asset with the sheer number of golf courses available to us [around 390] and the ease of access in metro centres, the reality is they were not built to a current modern standard and fall short of the expectations of premium international tourists."
Golf is the most played sport in the country, with half a million Kiwis playing each year, and was introduced about 150 years ago. One important potential market, China, has only been playing the sport in significant numbers for around 30 years.
Players there have not grown up with golf and what they know about it is what they have seen on broadcasts of international tournaments — such as the Augusta Masters.
"So when they come to New Zealand and play on a course where the land was once used to graze sheep and cattle and whose fairways were carved out by a farmer on a tractor generations ago, the experience does not resonate with their image of what they know about the game."
One problem many courses faced was they don't compete well with either historic links style courses, or modern courses that have been designed by professional golf course architects. Many New Zealand courses tend to have less challenging routing, strategies and features than newer courses — which makes them less interesting to tourists.
"We end up getting a hodge podge of design - bunkers in the wrong place and greens lose shape and undulation as sand put on to top dress them. Golf is a very visual game and often that's why people like a course more than another one."
There were a number of local golf construction specialists in the country including some who have gained overseas experience on a range of sites and can work with golf course architects here to achieve a high quality of build.
"There is also an increasing focus on the role of golf courses in preserving and enhancing the natural environment — which may include the integration of wetlands and native plantings. This is significant in terms of carbon sequestration and native habitat, as well as creating a unique sense of place," Kerr said.
Kerr said while many of our golf courses are not yet at a modern standard, New Zealand is leading the way in turf grass research and the export of grasses around the world, and our experts are regularly invited to speak on the topic at international turf grass conferences.
"If you compare NZ to a country like Scotland which has the most courses per head of population the major difference is almost all of ours are playable year-round due to our climate," she said.
Kerr said a small number of our marquee courses are at a premium level and the feedback from international tourists and locals is that these courses are exceptional.
Marquee courses like Hawke's Bay's Cape Kidnappers currently have green fees for international tourists of $330 for 18 holes — which are lower rates than those found in international courses such as Pebble Beach.
Courses like Cape Kidnappers and Jack's Point in Queenstown are world standard but they are not representative of the quality found in other parts of the country.
"As a country we have a unique opportunity to utilise the time before the borders fully reopen to look strategically at which courses could be redeveloped to better meet the needs of this segment of high net worth tourists.
"To upgrade a single hole can be around $200,000 but with over 60,000 international tourists playing golf here, the potential exists to add millions of dollars of tourism export earnings and increase the appeal of NZ as a golfing destination for this market,'' she said.
"Golf has an important role to play in NZs economic recovery as golf tourists spend more in areas that Kiwis tend not to and on higher end related experiences such as helicopter travel and quality restaurants that backpackers don't."
The scenic backdrop of many golf courses have also become increasingly popular for weddings, receptions and small conferences — which may provided an additional stream of revenue.
Kerr, who studied landscape architecture and urban planning, said golf was one of the few sports in the world that has seen a surge in interest during the pandemic as more people are restricted from travelling, open spaces make it easy to socially distance, as well as increased participation from a younger demographic.
She said new-generation technology is also playing an increasing role in modern golf course design — particularly as more millennials are attracted to playing and urban land is at a premium.
"There is a lot of new tech being integrated into golf courses now — essentially they are creating entertainment zones which make the game more social — akin to the golf course version of a bowling alley in many ways. Internationally, this is proving a wonderful tool in introducing new players to the game."
Asked about the conflict seen at times between retaining courses or making them available for residential or commercial development, she said golf courses were important especially in urban areas to be the lungs of the city.
She is working on remodelling the Omaha Golf Club, Akarana Golf Club in Auckland and Boulcott's Farm Heritage Golf Club in Lower Hutt the moment.
Asked about international golf visitors, Tourism New Zealand's director marketing Tony Rogers said premium travellers were more likely to be resilient to the economic impacts of Covid and will be an important part of tourism recovery in New Zealand.
"Tourism New Zealand is focused on ensuring that tourism enriches Aotearoa and an important part of this is targeting and attracting visitors who are willing to travel and are seeking immersive, transformative experiences and to make a positive contribution to New Zealand."
Tourism NZ has found international golf visitors want courses that have amazing vistas and are clearly different from the courses they play at home.
New Zealand's points of difference are: Stunning vistas (our courses are set against a backdrop of stunning New Zealand nature and awe-inspiring scenery), they are local and diverse (NZ is filled with golf courses offering a diverse range of experience) and offer post-game indulgence (although courses are immersed in nature, world-class food and wine, spa, vineyards and accommodation are never far away).
The key barrier from a consumer perception is the lack of knowledge about New Zealand as a golf destination and visitors were also worried that quality courses could be few and far between and too remote from the comforts visitors enjoyed while on holiday.