From Plettenberg Bay in the east to Pinnacle Point in the west, it is proving a quiet and costly summer for golf courses and their staff in the Garden Route as they rue the absence of international tourists gracing their fairways due to Covid restrictions. Golf is thought to be worth at least R100-million in annual tourism spend to the Garden Route economy.
January to March usually brings with it an invasion of golfing tourists from the northern hemisphere, making the Garden Route, with its attractive collection of high-profile courses, one of the world’s most popular golf destinations at this time of year.
During this peak season period the resorts are able to charge high-end green fees for golfers paying with euros and sterling. Each fourball grosses between R5 000 and R6 000, and tee times are generally full every day. While local golfers may balk at paying these prices, for foreign visitors it represents good value compared to playing elsewhere in the world.
“It’s sad not to hear any foreign voices around,” said Plettenberg Bay Country Club manager Greg Phillips. “And our caddies lost 500 rounds in January alone, a considerable amount of income for them.”
“European tourists made up 70% of our income last year, so we are hurting,” said Pinnacle Point director of golf Quintin Byleveldt. “The only foreigners here are those who own properties.”
Pinnacle Point, with its spectacular Indian Ocean cliffside layout and equally dramatic clubhouse, is one of the chief attractions luring tourists to the cornucopia of golfing treasures in the Garden Route. Others include the Fancourt, Simola, Pezula and Oubaai resorts, while there’s a big demand to play “cheaper” courses such as George, Kingswood, Mossel Bay, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Goose Valley.
Without the foreign visitor traffic, local golfers are benefitting though. Right now is a good time to visit the Garden Route. The resorts are currently pushing promotional packages that are normally only in place in the quieter winter months.
Fancourt has a number of them, including its popular Tee Off in Paradise offer where for R7 000 two people can share a hotel room for two nights, playing the Montagu and Outeniqua courses. For R10 000 a person you can enjoy a three-night weekend stay which gives you an extra round at South Africa’s No 1 course, The Links. It’s R9 000 in midweek. These are valid until the end of September.
“When Fancourt re-opened last September (after lockdown) we had great local support, more than usual for the time of year,” said marketing manager Michelle van der Westhuizen. “Hotel occupancy was higher than expected. But now with very few international visitors we are down year on year as is everyone else.”
At Pinnacle Point you can buy an 8-round package for R3 999, or R500 a round, about 33% of the price you would normally pay in peak season. Pinnacle Point also has two-night stay and play offers for groups in self-catering villas starting at R590 per person per night. These offers will last to the end of October.
The bigger members clubs in the Garden Route, while not as overly reliant on visitors as the resorts, are not immune to their absence.
“George Golf Club is no less vulnerable than the resorts to the international travel ban,” said general manager Sandra Lennox. “We have a big membership, but in rand value visitor rounds normally contribute 60% of our income for the year.”
Pezula GM Francois de Lange said that the golf club writes close to 40% of its yearly revenue between December and February. “Last year was bad enough. To put 2020/21 into context we have lost 60% of our normal revenue, so you can imagine what has to happen with our expenses to keep above water.”
One consolation is that several clubs enjoyed a bumper December season, mainly due to the beaches being closed. “Plettenberg Bay had the second highest number of rounds in my 14 years at the club in this time,” said Phillips. “But it all went quiet on January 15 when our upcountry members and holidaymakers departed. Our January rounds were down by 800 on 2020, and there’s also the loss of golf cart revenue.
“We have put all capex expenses on hold and are watching our costs. Our staff are working separate shifts, one day on and one off, in case of infection. All are still on full pay and no retrenchments are planned.”
February is traditionally the busiest month at Simola resort in Knysna, and golf operations manager Jamie Kietzmann reports 50% fewer rounds. “To get feet through the door the green fee has been substantially reduced,” he said. “Last year it was R1 490 per person including a cart and halfway house. December was a good month with rounds slightly up on 2019, and in January we had 2 612 rounds, but turnover was down as there were virtually no overseas visitors.”
Resorts closer to Cape Town are also hurting. “We are doing half the usual number of rounds for this time of year, without any of the higher paying green fees,” said Arabella director of golf Mike Munro. “Fortunately the local market is still playing golf so it’s worth being open, but midweek resembles June/July rather than February.”