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Golf losing its grip on tourism market

Tough economy, more courses competing for fewer players

Images of pristine golf courses with mountains or the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop have long been used to sell the Island and Greater Victoria as a destination to travellers.

But courses that depend on those tourists are in the rough these days, say industry experts.

Cost appears to be the biggest culprit in keeping visitors away. Tourism expert Frank Bourree said 2007 was the biggest tourism year Greater Victoria had ever seen before economic disaster set in, and the city has yet to recover.

"The market crashed and the Canadian dollar flipped [to beyond par with the U.S. greenback] and the price of gas went up -- then we started to see the declining numbers," said the principal of Chemistry Consulting, noting golf courses felt the downturn as much as any other attraction, restaurant or hotel.

He said there are simply more courses in both Canada and the U.S. competing for fewer players.

A study by the B.C. Golf Marketing Alliance -- presented at the Allied Golf Associations of B.C. symposium on the future of the game in March -- concluded that the Canadian and B.C. markets are recovering, but the overall trend is negative and B.C. is losing 124,000 person trips to the U.S. each year.

A National Golf Federation report delivered at that symposium noted expectations of the number of active golfers have not been met. There are

26 million golfers actively playing, down from the 29 million expected by 2010.

That report also pointed out the number of rounds played each year has declined from 525 million to 475 million, despite estimates as high as 700 million.

"I don't know if we will ever see 2007 again," said Steve Jackson, co-founder of Golf Central, a 17-year-old company that books golf packages -- from flights and tee times to hotel rooms and meals. "It's been down for two and a half years and it's only come back a bit to the point it's been decent this year."

While Golf Central's business previously focused on golfers from elsewhere looking to book packages in B.C., the company is now booking trips to the U.S. "We're now saying yes to trips we used to say no to," he said, citing a recent trip with more than 80 Canadian golfers heading to Arizona. "Before, we just didn't have the time to do those."

Jackson said Victoria is just not getting the U.S. traffic it used to in the summer -- mainly from the southern U.S. and golfers trying to escape the heat and get onto courses with more hospitable climes.

Gary Cowan, CEO of Bear Mountain, which has two 18-hole courses, said they are seeing more use than last year but remain below budget.

"We are slightly up from last year, but we expected to be up a lot more from last year, as Bear Mountain matures and moves further away from the financial issues we had a few years ago," he said. "But talking to everyone in the industry, golf is suffering, even [course] designers have fewer projects in the U.S."

Golf was a boom industry before the fall of 2008.

Developments and resorts sprang up all over the U.S. and B.C., with golf courses being used as a hook for people to buy condos and houses.

The real estate crash forced Bear Mountain into creditor protection, from which it has since emerged, and killed a variety of golf-resort projects on the Island, including Wyndansea in Ucluelet and the Cliffs at Maple Bay. Similar problems played out all over Nevada and Arizona.

Jim Goddard, director of golf for the Cordova Bay Golf Course, said since the market crash, Canadians have been flocking to those states where they are basically "giving golf away."

"If you think the golf business is weak here, it's in panic mode down there," Goddard said.

But he's quick to point out it's not all gloom and doom, especially on the Island. Goddard said local courses that have ensured they cater to local golfers are on the right track.

"Things are going quite well for our facility and I know that's not the norm in the industry right now. A lot of courses are struggling quite badly. But like in any business, good operators are fine and bad operators will struggle," he said.

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