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A multi-million dollar investment is needed to upgrade New Zealand’s ageing golf course infrastructure to attract more high net worth tourists – according to an industry expert.

Golf was first played in New Zealand in Dunedin in 1871, with 2021 marking the 150 year anniversary of the sport in this country.

According to latest industry figures, around 61,000 international visitors play golf in New Zealand annually – contributing over $425 million to the economy with over 80% of golf tourism spend on accommodation, dining, shopping, travel and other forms of entertainment. As a sector, golf employs 2,000 Kiwis and is the most popular club based sport for adults with 500,000 golfers.

Kristine Kerr, director of Kura Golf Course Design, 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, 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 says although we have the second 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 this segment of tourists – once the borders reopen.

“While New Zealand has an incredible legacy asset with the sheer number of golf courses available to us 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.

“In contrast to our market that has had golf for 150 years, we know that the Chinese for example have only been playing the sport in significant numbers for around 30 years. They have not grown up with golf and what they know about golf is often 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 of the key issues we face with these courses is that in terms of interest and design 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 have 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” she says.

Kerr says while many of our golf courses are not yet at a modern standard, New Zealand is leading the way in turfgrass research and the export of grasses around the world, and our experts are regularly invited to speak on the topic at international turfgrass conferences.

“The regional climatic differences throughout New Zealand give us a great deal of experience in growing grass to meet a range of environments, requiring less inputs and maintenance.

“Local research is now investigating the benefits of breeding specific grasses for golf greens and fairways, as well as developing surfaces that suit the particular climate of their location, such as being drought tolerant and along with habitat creation our courses are now receiving globally recognised sustainability accreditation” she says.

“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 says.

Kerr says 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.

She says 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 networth 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.

“The scenic backdrop of many golf courses have also become increasingly popular for weddings, receptions and small conferences – which may provide us with an additional stream of revenue,” she says.

Kerr says golf is 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 says 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.

“In particular, practice areas have technology which can analyse swings and track the distance and trajectory of the ball – but within a relatively confined space which is becoming more essential for metro areas where land prices are at a premium.