In 2009, Kenya was voted ‘Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year’ by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.
At the 2011 World Travel Market in London, the country’s Tourism Minister Najib Balala officially launched the Kenya Golf Guide. During the 2011 International Golf Travel Market held in Turkey, Kenya was one of eight countries nominated as the best golfing destinations.
All of a sudden there’s lots of excitement about the tourism potential of golf in Kenya, a fact which seems curious considering the long history of the game there. But for a country that has long struggled to broaden its tourism offerings beyond the cut-and-paste safaris, and to uplift its image above that of mass-market destination, golf tourism represents a fresh diversification of Kenya’s tourism products. And if properly exploited, then a viable new branch of tourism has just been ‘discovered’.
Royal Nairobi Club, Kenya’s first golf club, was established over one hundred years ago and there are currently more than 40 courses countrywide, ten of which are classified as being of international standard. The problem, however, is that few overseas golfers or tourism operators have been aware of this. “For many years, the marketing efforts for golf tourism were disjointed,” explains David Stogdale, chairman of the Kenya Golf Marketing Alliance. Consequently, Kenya’s golf resources were not fully developed and marketed.
Golf tourism represents a sector of generally high-spending tourists for whom golf is the primary deciding factor in the choice of a holiday destination. Additionally, golf tourists will travel long distances, including overseas, for a good game. For example, long haul golf tour operators from the USA and Australia will typically package a 14-night trip that includes seven rounds of golf and three days on safari. This represents tremendous business opportunities for both city and resort hotels with golf courses on site or nearby.
And Kenya has a number of golf features already in its favour, beginning with its suitable weather; long days of comfortable temperatures and plenty of sunshine make for almost year-round golfing. The hospitality infrastructure is already well established, including hotels, airlines and ground transportation.
There are eight ‘Export-ready’ golf courses, meaning they’re appropriate for international golf travellers. These are Muthaiga, Karen, Limuru, Windsor, Sigona, Nyali, Vipingo and Great Rift Valley. Kenyan caddies and staff are well spoken in English, an advantage over many other exotic golf destinations.
According to IAGTO’s Chief Executive, Peter Walton, the implementation of a clear Golf Tourism and Promotional Development Strategy is essential. For any golf destination to be successful it must score highly in four key areas: quality, access, price and promotion. In terms of quality, Kenya’s international standard golf courses are further advantaged by being located within naturally attractive landscapes or wilderness areas. While some golfers travel purely to play the game, the majority will want to include a safari in their itinerary, for which Kenya is abundantly blessed with options.
Access into Kenya by scheduled international flights from top golfing markets already exists. Thomas Iten, the Managing Director of Private Safaris and member of the KGMA explains. “Golfers want easy access. So it’s good that one can fly directly to Nairobi from many European countries including the UK, France, Netherlands and Switzerland.” Moreover, there are direct flights from Germany and Italy into Mombasa. And locally, there is easy transfer to golf resorts both by road and air. Green fees are generally lower than those overseas as are the caddy fees, and subsequently they represent a smaller percentage of the golf package price.
Despite scoring relatively well on quality, access and price, not many golf travellers or tour operators have been considering Kenya as a golf destination, implying a weakness in the tourism marketing strategy to consumers. To move from ‘undiscovered’ to ‘understood’, Kenya must focus on creating awareness and leveraging its special golf attributes to golfers abroad.
Therefore, the recently launched Kenya Golf Guide and Kenya Golf website by local tour operators in partnership with KTB, and with the personal endorsement of the Ministry of Tourism, is a step in the right direction. From a marketing perspective, the focus shouldn’t be on selling cheaper room rates to international tour operators but selling the unique aspects of playing golf in Kenya; aspects such the weather, stunning landscapes, fabulous safari experiences and overall good value for money.
Although Kenya has the largest tourism industry in East Africa, it lags behind in the area of tourism spend. Average tourism spend is around $500 (Sh41,500), compared to Tanzania at $1,600 (Sh132,800). One objective of the tourism industry, according to the Kenya Tourism Federation, is to raise the average tourism spend to approximately $800 (Sh66,400) by the end of this year.
Golf is perceived worldwide as a high-end sport that elevates the profile of a destination and golf tourists’ spend is generally higher than average. “The average beach holiday in Kenya is about $500. The average golf holiday at the Coast is about three times this,” notes Iten. And that’s not to mention the additional visitor spend in the local economy through restaurants, shops, taxis and so forth. The unique golfing experiences are what Kenya needs to capitalise on in order to benefit from golf tourism. Certainly, this is the trick that Fairmont Hotel employs to promote its golf product at the elegant Mt Kenya Safari Club.
The club’s course is set against the stunning backdrop of Mt Kenya, has only nine holes but is widely acknowledged as a brutal play, providing lots of challenge to golfers. “It’s an amenity course, but more and more guests are choosing to play golf while on holiday at the Club,” explains Sean Walwyn, Fairmont Director of Sales and Marketing, Africa.
“However, the seventh hole is the most famous part of the course; tee off south of the equator and putt north of the equator.” Fairmont Mt Kenya is possibly the only course in the world where this is possible. And for the business traveller in the city looking for some recreation in between business commitments, Fairmont’s The Norfolk has created golf packages to three championship-level courses: Muthaiga, Limuru and Sigona.
For established golf clubs, golf tourism represents new revenue sources. Over the Christmas and New Year season, Nairobi hotels typically offer very competitive room rates and this period also sees more availability in the courses. Coincidentally European golf travellers generally travel in winter, from October to April. “There are days when golfing by club members is low. These are good opportunities for golf clubs to attract overseas golf travellers,” says Iten. Club members mostly play over the weekend but golf holiday travellers are not constrained by work schedules.
“Another option is to invite pro golfers to Kenya during the winter season of the northern hemisphere, which is when the weather here is good,” suggest Iten. A pro (professional) golfer earns a living by providing paid-for services including golf training and sports equipment. With Europe’s golf season limited by weather, there’s plenty of scope for Kenya’s tourism industry to tap into the skills of the pro golfers in promoting golf tourism.
Kenya being a key conference destination, golf can also be used to attract more international meetings and potentially increase the length of visitor stays by up to 50 per cent, according to the KGMA. With the official launch of Golf Guide and website, Kenya will now be competing with bigger and better known golf destinations that have been in the business for decades. However, through smart strategies, Kenya could catch up fairly soon. In KTB’s worldwide offices covering over 20 countries, golf marketing has an excellent channel for reach out to the overseas golfing market.
Another strategy KGMA has employed is the involvement of a wider network of non-tourism stakeholders in its marketing efforts. “Unlike other countries that have purely golf tourism associations, Kenya has formed the Kenya Golf Marketing Alliance,” reveals Iten. This opens the doors to a wide sector of industries to partner in the development of golf tourism.
So are the upgraded marketing efforts bearing any fruit yet? Yes, according to Mike Macharia, CEO of the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers. “Kenya is generally well known by the golf tour operators, we’re seeing more and more interest in the product, and therefore the next step is to attack the consumers,” says Macharia. “We are now at the stage of developing consumer campaigns within the normal KTB marketing programmes and we are sure that they will pay off in the long run.”
KGMA is planning the first ever Kenya Golfing Festival in early 2013, which will give international golfers and tour operators a first-hand experience of the exceptional golf opportunities of Kenya. The event will bring in hotels, airlines, local tour operators and corporates in a joint effort to elevate the profile of Kenya golf tourism. The future definitely looks bright for golf in Kenya. And with the concerted efforts of both the private sector, Ministry of Tourism and KTB, Kenya is well positioned to harness the tourism potential of golf.