Anyone who’s played Ko’Olau Golf Course on Oahu has surely regaled fellow golfers with stories of playing one of the most difficult and visually stunning courses in the world – soaring mountains, lush green surroundings, and forced carries over deep ravines. The oft-repeated joke is that the course record at Ko’Olau was 63… lost balls, that is. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a layout anywhere that looks like a better setting for a Jurassic Park movie.
Sadly, Ko’Olau has been closed, perhaps permanently.
Like many golf courses in Hawaii, Ko’Olau was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. While Hawaii may be paradise on earth, that hasn’t been the case for the golf industry in the islands during the Covid era. Throughout the rest of the country, the number of rounds-played (year-over-year) has been up in every single state in the continental U.S. for the months of June, July and August. That translates to roughly 27 million more summer rounds nationwide than a year ago. It’s been a phenomenal rebound for an industry that lost 20 million rounds in the spring due to virus-related course shutdowns.
In Hawaii, where tourism accounts for more than 20% of the state’s economy, it’s been quite a different story as travelers (and golfers) from the mainland have essentially had to stay away. It’s been particularly tough at golf facilities like the Plantation Course at Maui’s Kapalua Resort, site of the PGA TOUR’s winner’s-only Tournament of Champions each January, where play volume is down about 90% from a normal year as the property’s two courses have alternated operational days and limited tee times while cutting back to three golf operations staffers.
“About 98% of our business has been local – Kama’aina – so it’s lower pricing too,” says Kapalua General Manager Alex Nakajima. “With that model, resort courses can’t survive. There’s not enough population to support all the courses in Hawaii.”
While rounds-played numbers have been up significantly across the U.S. since the bulk of courses reopened in May, Hawaii has seen continued year-over-year declines: -50.2% in May, -42.6% in June, -38.2% in July and -30.5% in August.
“It’s frustrating to be in the visitor industry, which much of this whole state depends on, and for us to have these beautiful courses that for the most part are kind of empty,” said Josh Silliman, Director of Golf for the Mauna Kea Resort’s two Big Island courses. “We should be pumping tourism play through here and let everyone have some fun and experience the great golf, which is one of the safest things you can do. You’ve seen that across the U.S. But here it’s so far down because the tourists aren’t coming.”
Fortunately, that’s soon changing.
On Oct. 15, Hawaii is starting a pre-travel testing program for both residents and visitors arriving from out-of-state. This means that travelers with a negative test result from a state-approved Covid-19 testing facility within 72 hours of the final leg of their departing flight will be exempt from the islands’ 14-day mandatory quarantine. Travelers will still have their temperatures checked upon arrival and fill out a travel and health form, but this program should have a major impact in restarting tourism throughout Hawaii. It’s similar to a successful testing program in place for travel to Alaska and some airlines are now implementing pre-testing processes, with results available within five minutes in some cases.
“I’m optimistic that there will be a ‘pent up demand’ to travel to Hawaii,” says Kris Strauss, Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Troon, the world’s biggest golf management company. Troon operates facilities in Hawaii such as Kapalua, Mauna Lani on the Big Island, Kapolei on Oahu and Princeville Makai on Kauai. “For those that had trips planned to International locations, Hawaii offers a domestic alternative that is ‘exotic,’ unique and rich in culture, yet you don’t have to travel internationally. Hawaii has a high percentage of repeat visitors and those repeat visitors will be anxious to get back. Best of all, the golfer demographic lines up well with strategies to prop up Hawaii tourism.”
The Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau is looking to target golfers, recognizing the particular value and affluence of this traveler segment as it seeks to rebuild the state’s tourism. Troon will also be aggressive in the promotion of stay and play packages, among them a ‘Best of Hawaii’ vacation that features stops and rounds of golf on three different islands.
“Hawaii does not need mass tourism, which leads to road congestion, overcrowding of beaches, hiking trails and so on,” said Troon’s Strauss, who was born and raised on Oahu. “It needs high value travelers that stay longer, spend more, drive ancillary spending, etc. Golfers fit perfectly into that target market. The golf travelers appreciate, and are willing to pay for, 4- and 5-star resort experiences, experiences on great golf courses, then use off days and non-golf days to spend them in the spas, dine in locally owned and operated restaurants, shop in retail centers, browse galleries for art. They are the right traveler for Hawaii to ‘target.’”
At Kapalua, almost all play will be at the Plantation Course from mid-October through the Tournament of Champions in early January. If demand is high enough, the resort’s Bay Course will re-open sometime in mid-December. Hotels in the area will similarly have a staggered opening as visitors from the mainland begin to return – likely from the closest West Coast market first, which is expected to recover ahead of the coveted Far East market that skews highly in the golf segment, as well as the more distant U.S. East coast.
“Once people make the effort to travel to Hawaii again, I expect you’ll actually see more stay a bit longer,” says Nakajima. “We certainly hope so. It’s been nice to have 3 1/2 -hour rounds, because the locals aren’t really looking around, but we’re anxious to welcome tourists back.”