Swing vote: What next for Brexit effect on Ireland’s golfing tourism?

There has been considerable commentary in recent weeks about what Brexit means for Irish tourism. Most of it revolves around the uncertainty the Leave vote has created and that certainly applies to Irish tourism.

The approach being taken by our tourism bodies is be summed up by Failte Ireland’s CEO, Shaun Quinn: “It is much too early to speculate on the long term consequences of the result for tourism in the British market.” As sterling struggles — and there are those who predict it could reach parity with the euro — it is worth reflecting that the sterling to euro exchange rate of today is still not as low as that of March 2013, or much of 2011. We have battled back from that position and Ireland welcomed 4.5m British visitors to our shores last year. The difference between then and now, however, is the permanence of the factors involved: namely the UK’s departure from the EU.

For Irish golf there are three key factors which will present significant challenges in the short to medium term:

1. UK golfers coming to Ireland

Golf visitors from the UK account for roughly 50% of all golfers playing in Ireland, or close to 100,000 people. They may spend less than the ‘average’ overseas golfer (€1,200*) and stay for a shorter period, but the scale of their business is still vital to Irish golf. This proportion of 50% has, at least, fallen from 66% in the early 2000s as visitor numbers from Continental Europe and the US have taken on greater significance.

The current feedback is that there appears to be no immediate fall in business.

Golf clubs and golf businesses accept, however, that there is considerable uncertainty for next year and beyond.

Conor McKenna, head professional at Concra Wood, Co. Monaghan, is at the coalface of the north/south divide. “About 60% of our business comes from the North,” he says. “The exchange rate will hit us, but this time of year is always busy so it’s moving forward into next year that is of concern. Our goal is to avoid a knee-jerk response of cutting prices and continue to add value instead.”

Farther to the south, Club Choice Ireland is an alliance of hotels, resorts and golf clubs in the east and south east, with a specific focus on the UK market. It started providing tailormade golf packages in 2010, to get the UK golfer back to Ireland following the downturn. The business has been booming ever since, with some 85% of their business coming from across the Irish Sea.

Tiernan Byrne, managing director, acknowledges the challenges Brexit now raises: “The issue is not the exchange rate volatility but the uncertainty facing prospective clients over the next year or two,” he says.

“Brexit has not had an immediate impact on business but we are anticipating the potential difficulties and we are working to address the concerns of our clients before they are even raised. One of the ways we are doing that is by ensuring that we are as accommodating as possible and that we add value. The fact that we’re a smaller, more personalised organisation helps us to achieve this.”

Guy Proddow, director at Golfbreaks.com in Berkshire, offers a UK perspective: “UK outbound bookings to Spain and Portugal remain very strong,” Proddow says, “but the most worrying part for us is if the UK goes into recession. When that happened in 2008/09, rather than going abroad there was a massive pick-up in UK domestic bookings.

“We’re seeing no significant change to inbound UK bookings at the moment,” he continues, “but we are definitely pushing Brexit and the falling exchange rate to the US golfing market. These are influential factors, no question.”

For 2016, Tourism Ireland is continuing with its broad €4m promotional campaign in the UK, but, moving forward, it may need to consider a stronger value message — not just for golf but for all that Ireland has to offer.

2. Irish golfers going to the UK

For Irish golfers, the lure of courses across the UK has been greatly enhanced. The day after Brexit, I chatted to an Irish golfer who had emailed his golfing friends that morning to say: “Let’s book a trip to Scotland, quick.” A journey to the Home of Golf is on the wish list of many golfers but Wales, England and Northern Ireland have also increased in attractiveness. Each has quality golf courses and thanks to the exchange rate green fees, travel, accommodation, food and drink have now all fallen by roughly 15%.

If you remember the joy experienced by Ireland’s catering industry when VAT was reduced to 9%, in July 2011, you can imagine how the UK tourism industry must now be rubbing their hands in anticipation of visitors to come. As the UK looks set to struggle in so many other areas in the coming years, the potential upside in tourism will be an important fillip.

This is potentially bad news for Ireland, as Irish golfers may be lured to the UK, rather than staying in Ireland to play our many great courses. One potential message for the Irish golf industry is this: even with the 15% discount in the exchange rate, the €180 it costs to play Lahinch and Ballybunion is still better value than the £230-£275 it costs to play Trump Turnberry and Kingsbarns. There are many Irish golfers who complain about Irish green fee levels but, compared to the top courses in the UK and US, Ireland still leads the way in terms of value.

3. North American and European golfers going to the UK

Despite the increasing number of international golfers visiting Ireland in recent years, the chances are that in many markets — North America, specifically — the UK has just gained a substantial financial advantage. Sterling is at a 30-year-low against the dollar, and US golfers will be salivating at the prospect of a trip to the mighty Scottish links. (It is only mildly ironic that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.)

This may not actually be the case, as the highly regarded golf writer, David Owen, points out: “The dollar is strong against the euro, too. I think it’s pretty close to a toss-up between Ireland and Scotland, and flights are cheap. We’ve made those trips at times when the exchange rate was lousy, from the American point of view, and by comparison with those everything seems like a bargain.”

Ireland also has certain advantages — our reputation for friendliness, Irish-American relations (and diaspora) and the black stuff being just some — but when you’re balancing the two greatest links golf destinations in the world and you get a sudden 15% discount at one end of the scales, that’s hard to ignore.

The difference in value is not as significant for Continental European golfers but it could still be a factor in choosing between the UK and Ireland.

These are three vital audiences for Irish golfing bodies to focus on in the years ahead and each will need to be targeted in different ways with different messages. For now the general approach is one of wait and see but Conor McKenna, from Concra Wood, adds a final warning shot: “Most clubs are probably not considering the consequences of Brexit quite yet, but the market is already reacting even if we can’t see it. The exchange rate has moved from 1.40 to around 1.17, and that’s going to hurt Irish golf.”


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