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Amid Golf’s Surge, Play in Hawaii Has Dropped

by National Golf Foundation

January 2021

Rounds of golf were up year-over-year in every single state in the continental U.S. for the months of June, July, August, September and October. That translates to over 50 million more rounds nationwide than a year ago, an unprecedented turnaround for an industry that lost 20 million rounds in the spring due to virus-related course shutdowns.

However, the caveat above is “continental U.S.”

While Hawaii may be paradise, that hasn’t been the case for the golf industry in the islands during the Covid era as travelers (and golfers) from the mainland essentially had to stay away for most of 2020. Tourism accounts for more than 20% of the state’s economy, so the impact has been acutely felt 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 was down about 90% from a normal year as the property’s two courses alternated operational days and limited tee times while cutting back to just three golf operations staffers.

“About 98% of our business has been local – Kama’aina – so it’s lower pricing too,” Kapalua General Manager Alex Nakajima said. “With that model, resort courses can’t survive. There’s not enough population to support all the courses in Hawaii.”

The 11th hole of the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort on Maui, site of the PGA TOUR’s annual Sentry Tournament of Champions each January. (Photo credit: Troon)


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% in May, -43% in June, -38% in July, -31% in August, -41% in September and -36% in October. Most recently in November, rounds were still down 30% YOY at Hawaii’s 74 golf facilities, almost one-third of which are affiliated with a resort property of some kind.

“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 kind of empty,”  Josh Silliman, Director of Golf for the Mauna Kea Resort’s two Big Island courses, said in early October. “We should be pumping tourism play through here and let everyone have some fun and experience in 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.”

On Oct. 15, Hawaii started a pre-travel testing program for both residents and visitors arriving from out-of-state.

This means 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 are exempt from the islands’ 14-day mandatory quarantine. Visitors from the mainland and outside the U.S. will still have their temperatures checked upon arrival and fill out a travel and health form, but the program is helping restart tourism throughout Hawaii.

The 17th hole at Wailua Golf Course on Kauai, the western-most municipal golf facility in the U.S.


“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 still yet ‘exotic,’ unique and rich in culture, yet you don’t have to travel internationally,” Strauss added. “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.”

That influx will also help locals, a sizable percentage of whom rely on jobs tied to tourism. Hawaii’s real gross domestic product declined by more than 42% during the second quarter this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“Right now, across America there’s been this resurgence of public golf play. That’s all a really good sign. But that’s not at all happening in Hawaii,” says Golf Channel’s Mark Rolfing, the broadcaster known as ‘Mr. Hawaii’ for his long-time professional and personal ties to the islands. “The main reason is that the economic calamity that’s occurred has been so detrimental that the unemployment rate and the whole situation out there is such that even many of the locals who want to play golf now can’t afford to. The courses that we hoped were going to keep going based on local play just aren’t able to do that.”

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 is being 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.’”

The 16th hole at the Kapalua Resort’s Bay Course on Maui.


At Kapalua, almost all play from mid-October through early January was at the Plantation Course, with the Bay Course re-opening in mid-December. Hotels in the area adopted a similarly 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.”

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