Monday 19 February 2018

Tourism funding off target

Oliver Barry reckons Irish golf is focused on wrong target, as he tells Dermot Gilleece

When Fáilte Ireland reflect on an Irish Open which was hailed far and wide as a remarkable success, they might consider a decidedly contrary view from the owner of one of the country's busiest golf facilities. "It is a total waste of taxpayers' money as far as clubs like mine are concerned," said Oliver Barry, who is celebrating 20 years at Hollystown.

He claims that such promotions are aimed essentially at elite clubs which represent only five per cent of the Irish market. "The other 95 per cent is what our tourism people should be concentrating on," he said. "And instead of an obsession with the American market, they should be looking towards our British neighbours and continental Europe."

Though £2 million was contributed by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for the Royal Portrush staging, there was also an input from the Republic's coffers which will bear the brunt of next year's outlay at Carton House.

Against this background, Barry added: "Let me be clear that I heartily support the notion of promoting the country's image and showcasing our leading players through the Irish Open. But the government spend should be far lower than is currently contemplated. I can't easily forget the money splashed on the 2006 Ryder Cup which delivered zero for the Irish golf industry."

When Hollystown was launched in 1992 as an 18-hole facility near Mulhuddart in North Dublin, its owner's stated objective was "to provide high-quality golf at a very affordable price". In its various creations, it was home from August 1996 until December 1999 to the Christy O'Connor Club, an enterprise named after 'Himself'.

Now, a large, local community has grown from the sale of houses and with more than 700 men and women members on what is now a 27-hole facility, the undertaking could be deemed a resounding success. In fact, green fees of €24 midweek and €34 at weekends are actually lower than they were 10 years ago.

Like a loyal lieutenant, Dubliner Joe Bedford has been its only course superintendent from the outset, and having designed the third nine which opened in August 1999, he currently doubles as the club's honorary secretary. "Joe was here when we first laid the greens, about eight months before the official opening," said the owner. "Since then, he has made a major contribution through his professionalism and commitment."

From 296 golf clubs 20 years ago, Ireland now has 431 of which a considerable number are struggling for survival. Others in NAMA or in receivership provide a more stark reflection of these recessionary times.

In this context, I did some calculations aimed at highlighting the very significant contribution golf clubs have made to the national exchequer. Upwards of €150m from golf tourism becomes possible annually because of the 308 golf clubs in the Republic of Ireland which make their facilities available to visitors.

If each one were to be valued at an average of, say, €5m, that comes to a total of €1.54bn in sporting amenities. In return, the government contributed no more than about €15m in EU structural funding to a limited number of these clubs under the two five-year Tourism Programmes of 1989 to 1993 and 1994 to 1998.

"Spread throughout rural Ireland, and indeed here in Dublin, they represent a wonderful national resource," said Barry. "I'm thinking not of places like The K Club, Mount Juliet, Ballybunion, Adare, The Old Head and others in that bracket, but of Carrick-on-Shannon, Longford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Kanturk. That's where the real market is.

"Why the obsession with the high end? If it's natural beauty you want, we have swans here at Hollystown. And let's be honest, the sky is the sky, grass is grass and the sea is the sea. The important consideration for people these days is what is it going to cost me?

"At a time when people are being forced to cut their cloth, we should treat golf tourism the same as we do fishing, shooting, walking and cycling. Look at the fitness business where gyms have been badly hit by the recession. Have people stopped exercising? Not a bit of it. But they're doing it in a much cheaper way.

"You can walk and run for nothing. That's why so many people have started competing in marathons. These sort of changes should be applied to the golf market. Treat it as a game that's open to all. We should be targeting visitors who will come here for a casual game of golf at around €15 to €18, not ten times those figures.

"And what handicaps do the average visitors have? They're more likely to be playing off 18 or 20 than single figures. So they don't want elite courses where they'll have to hit a 200-yard drive to reach the fairway. They want a friendly environment that's value for money.

"And in countless towns throughout the country, we have fantastic courses, perfectly suited to their requirements. Courses where the quality has been improved out of all recognition in recent years.

And make it family-orientated, with B&B accommodation or even camping. This would contribute more to the economy than the big golf clubs which are constantly being promoted."

By showcasing the top clubs through an event like the Irish Open, Barry claims we're perpetuating an image of high prices, which threatened to kill us in the recent past, especially for hotels, restaurants and drink. And as a trenchant critic of Fáilte Ireland, he recalled: "I'll never forget the letter they sent to all golf clubs, asking us not to increase our green fee for the following year.

"On getting that particular letter here at Hollystown, we were quite annoyed, given our position at the lowest end of the market. But that annoyance was as nothing compared to the damage done when the letter was read out at a conference in Edinburgh. Scottish tourism officials used it to state that, by its own admission, golf was overpriced in Ireland.

"When we set out as the first in this country with pre-booking for golf at weekends, we were getting a minimum of 100-plus British golfers here every week. In fact, 15 per cent of our overall custom came from abroad. These were what you might describe as working-class tourists, who came over by ferry and air and would head from here down to Temple Bar. Good spenders. None of them are coming now. None. With proper marketing at national level, however, I believe we could get those people back."

And what of the NAMA courses, which are operating at rock-bottom prices? "It amounts to unfair trading, which could be in breach of European law," said Barry. "But I don't see that there's anything we can do about it. NAMA is a state body with a job to do and it's going to run its course."

It's been an eventful 20 years. As Bedford put it: "If we had a euro for all the people we have introduced to golf during that time, we'd be very wealthy people." Indeed they would.

Meanwhile, from the euphoria of Portrush last weekend and the speculation about a return of the Open Championship to this fair isle, it was almost refreshing to hear a coldly different view. About the other side of the golf business.

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