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Golf industry looks ahead with possible war on horizon

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - That feeling a boxer gets when he's just taken left hook to the chin, knows the right-handed haymaker is soon to follow, but is just too staggered to do anything about it - that must be the helpless feeling the golf travel industry has right about now.

With a potential war with Iraq looming, golf courses and resorts from Florida to California are bracing for their second major setback in the past year and a half. Airlines may have to cut schedules, hotel chains might retool their marketing efforts, and golf courses will try to attract more locals and players from drive-in and short haul markets.

Some experts say they believe the golf travel industry will go down for the count should U.S. and United Nations forces invade Iraq. They say that extracting Saddam Hussein and establishing a new regime could take years. And new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil could shift from possibility to reality and people's desire to travel will take a back seat to their need to live.

It says here the United States and its diverse collection of golf destinations will be just fine, thank you. They just might have to reinvent themselves over the next two to three years.

Myrtle Beach - the purported Golf Capital of the World - will require the least amount of tinkering should we make the leap from peace to war. The battle front in Iraq will do little to dampen the sprits of the nearly 12 million annual visitors who arrive by automobile.

"Our drive-in market should continue to hold its own, says Stephen Greene, a spokesman for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "If there is a war, there will be a couple of weeks where you have people staying home to follow events on TV."

The Grand Strand also seems to be faring well with air travel.

"After 9-11, we had the largest loss of daily flights for an airport our size," says Greene. "That had an immediate impact on golf because there is a much larger percentage of golfers who fly here than generic travelers. But beginning in March, we will see new airlines and new flights into and out of the airport. It really bucks the national trend."

"Buck" is too modest an assessment. Northwest began roundtrip service from Detroit in early March, Air Tran recently returned its service, and Hooters Air - a brand new airline owned by the wildly popular purveyors of chicken wings and scantily clad waitresses - began roundtrip service to Atlanta on March 6. Spirit Airlines, one of the Myrtle Beach International Airport's best bargains, will also reinstate a series of its popular routes.

Florida should be so lucky. The northern part of the state enjoys a fairly even split between the drive-in and fly-in markets. But destinations like Tampa/St. Pete, Fort Meyers/Naples and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale in the southern half of the state may look to reinvent their tourism models.

"I think you'll see more residents traveling around with the state," says Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida, the state's tourism promotion agency. "As a state, we encouraged this new travel pattern immediately following 9-11. This isn't something we had to contend with during Desert Storm. It was going on over there and everyone knew it wouldn't come over here. We'd all go do our thing and then tune into CNN to watch the bombing of Baghdad at night. This go around you have to have another shoe to drop."

In 1991, Florida 1 million fewer visitors than in 1990. According to Flanigan, Florida had a record number of tourists in 2002, the difference from ten years ago being shorter stays and frugal spending. As far as golfers, Flanigan says drastic times won't require drastic measures.

"When you are in a full court press to jump start as much visitation as you can, you have to take a broad approach," he says. "As a state, we can't go out and target a niche like golfers. Then we'd have to target tennis players, eco-tourists and the list would go on and on. Once upon a time we sold this state on cultural diversity and theme parks. Now we are going to have to sell it on price."

Price, once upon a time, was no object in Las Vegas. A round of golf at one of Glitter Gulch's top resort courses could go for $250-$300 during the peak spring and fall seasons. Now, a number of courses offer deep discounts for locals throughout the year. Local tourism officials also say they plan to target drive-in markets in Southern California and Arizona and short-haul flight markets like Chicago and Dallas.

"We haven't really broken out the golf travel market (separately) yet, but the closest thing we have to compare it to is the Gulf War," says Erika Brandvick of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We had an immediate decrease in our hotel/motel occupancy then, but it rebounded within a few months."

The looming war with Iraq comes at a time when the city is aggressively pitching itself as a golf destination. Over 35 million visitors make their way into Clark County each year, but only a small percentage of them are canvasing the fairways. This despite a glut of pristine daily fee and resort courses from big name designers.

"The thing about Las Vegas is that we are in it for the long haul," Brandvick says. "If you've visited, you know our golf courses, casinos, hotels are huge investments. But we are hoping that if there is a war, it is over quickly so the market doesn't take another prolonged hit."

With a little creative marketing and a lot of resiliency, the potential hit on America's golf destinations could be nothing more than a feeble jab.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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