Staying On Course

Golf clubs roll out the welcome mat to locals following a decrease in Japanese players.

December, 2001

Few things reflected Japan’s exploding wealth during the 1980s economic boom better than its sudden infatuation with golf. By the end of the decade there were 2,400 courses in the country, and the game provided hundreds of Japanese golfers with yet another excuse to make the 3,800-mile journey to the Aloha State.

Into the mid – 1990s, Japanese enthusiasts injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into local golf courses – comprising as much as half of total rounds played at certain clubs. But then the bubble burst, and the Japanese golf phenomenon suddenly took a toll on attendance at the 90 or more golf courses in Hawaii. So, although it appears Japanese golfers take up a good percentage of local tee times, the reality is that they represent a fairly small market, even at the resort courses. And this very fact — once a cause of distress for course owners — may now be their saving grace.

“We’re actually doing pretty well after the attack because our Japanese business started dropping off a couple of years ago,” says Tom Schrieber, guest services manager of the Prince Course on Kauai. “They used to be our bread and butter, but when their economy had problems, they stopped coming.” Japanese arrivals slid from 2.2 million in 1999 to 2 million the following year and havent stopped waning since, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. A more recent report released by DBEDT announced that Japanese visitor arrivals in September 2001 were 87,965, a 44.2 percent decrease from the previous year. Coupled with the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, the Sept. 11 attacks were the latter half of a one-two punch combo to all of Hawaii’s industries, including golf. Prior to 1998, Japanese golfers represented about 10 percent of all rounds played at the Prince Course.

Schreiber says the figure now is at roughly 0.5 percent, or about four rounds out of 80 per day. “We’re very lucky that we haven’t noticed an appreciable drop,” Schrieber says. Still, not all courses are having such luck, and most are being forced to deal with the harsh reality of declining visitor numbers. Rick Castillo, senior head golf professional at Wailea Golf Club, says although its Japanese business hasn’t taken too much of a hit (primarily because of a Japanese membership offered through its Japan-based owner, Shinwa Golf Kabushiki Kaisha), it has seen about a 15 percent drop in business overall following the attacks on Sept. 11. In a proactive attempt to prevent further drop-offs in rounds purchased, Wailea Golf Club has extended a “Kamaaina Special,” which is a reduced rate of $45 for locals.

Many courses, in fact, have been forced to quickly rethink their promotions and marketing strategies, offering deals and discounts to the otherwise shunned local market. On Oahu, Ko Olina Golf Club General Manager Jim Richerson says the course is also looking at locals to help fill some of the gap. Prior to Sept. 11, Japanese and local golfers contributed roughly 35 percent each to the number of total rounds played at Ko Olina Golf Club. But according to Richerson, the Japanese market has since dropped by a little more than half. “We have revamped some of our programs to make it more accommodating for group play as well as for locals,” says Richerson.

Kapalua Resort Director of Golf Marty Keiter says special “guest appreciation programs” were also established at the Maui-based club to stimulate business. Aimed at locals, resort guests and other visitors, the program rewards repeat golfers with special course and merchandise discounts.


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Jacy L. Youn