Multi-Million Dollar Upgrade to Attract Tourists

Golf was first played in New Zealand in Caversham, Dunedin, during September 1871, marking 2021 as the 150th anniversary of the sport’s introduction to the country. But to attract more high net worth tourists, industry expert Kristine Kerr said a multi-million-dollar investment is needed to upgrade New Zealand’s ageing golf course infrastructure.

According to the latest industry figures, approximately 61,000 golf players visit New Zealand annually, contributing over $425 million to the economy, with over 80% of golf tourism spent on accommodation, food, shopping, travel, and other forms of entertainment. As a sector, golf employs 2,000 Kiwi’s, and with 500,000 golfers, it is the most popular club-based sport for adults. Kristine Kerr, director of Kura Golf Course Design and golf course architect for over 40 courses, including championship courses in China, Italy, the Middle East, and the Czech Republic. Before COVID, Kerr said golf tourism in New Zealand was growing and was viewed as an extremely desirable destination for high net worth international visitors.

However, whilst we have the second-highest number of golf courses per capita in the world, many of them need major upgrades to meet current modern standards for international tourists. For example, whilst New Zealand has been playing golf for 150 years, the sport has only been in China for about 30 years. So, their conception of the game is formed by watching international games on TV. But when the Chinese play on New Zealand courses that were fashioned from sheep and cattle farms, the experience falls short of their expectations.

One of the key issues New Zealand’s golf courses face is their lack of historical link or modern design, says Kerr. Many New Zealand courses are less interesting to tourists because they “tend to have less challenging routing, strategies, and features.” There are multiple golf construction specialists with overseas experience who can collaborate with golf course architects to achieve a high-quality build, said Kerr. New generation technology is also playing an increasing role in modern golf course design, such as practice areas that have technology that can analyse swings, and track the distance and trajectory of the ball, but within a confined space which is essential in metro areas. 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.

Whilst many of our golf courses do not meet modern standards yet, New Zealand is leading the way in turfgrass research and the export of grasses around the world. With its regional climatic differences, New Zealand is able to grow grass suitable for a range of environments. This has led local research to investigate the benefits of breeding specific grass species for golf greens and fairways, as well as developing surfaces that suit their particular regional climate. "Our courses are now receiving globally recognised sustainability accreditation. Another highlight of New Zealand’s variable climate is almost all of our [golf courses] are playable year-round."

A small number of our marquee courses are at a premium level, and the feedback from both locals and international tourists is exceptional. Courses like Cape Kidnappers and Jack’s Point in Queenstown are world standard, with Hawke’s Bay’s Cape Kidnappers charging international tourists $330 per 18 holes – a lower rate than international courses such as Pebble Beach. However, these courses are not representative of the quality of other courses within the country.

Due to travel restrictions, golf is one of the few sports in the world that has seen a surge in interest during the COVID pandemic, with open spaces ideal for social distancing, and an increase in participation from a younger demographic. Whilst borders are closed, New Zealand has a unique opportunity to strategically redevelop certain courses to better meet the needs of high net worth tourists. Upgrading a single hole can cost around $200,000, but with over 60,000 international tourists playing golf here, there is potential to add millions of dollars of tourism earnings and increase the appeal of NZ as a golfing destination.