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Golf Tourism

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I am very proud to represent North East Fife and the town of St Andrews, which is known worldwide as the home of golf. As the local Member of Parliament, I have to declare a rather unusual interest: the St Andrews Links Order Confirmation Act 1974, passed in this place, designates the local MP as one of the eight trustees of the St Andrews Links Trust, which manages the seven courses in the town, including the Old Course.

This is a special year for the home of golf, because we are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Old Tom Morris, the founding father of golf. Old Tom won The Open four times, and his victory in 1867 at the age of 46 means that he is the oldest person to have ever won the claret jug. He finished runner up in 1868, behind the youngest ever winner, his 17-year-old son, Young Tom Morris. Old Tom was also a prolific course designer, contributing to more than 50 courses across the UK and Ireland, including with the famous 18th hole on the Old Course, which bears his name.

It is the story of legends such as Old Tom that make golf in Fife world famous. When people come and play they become part of a history that stretches all the way back to the 15th century, encompassing on its way Old Tom, Young Tom and the modern greats of the game, who are set to return to Fife when the 150th Open is held in St Andrews in 2022. It is a living history, too. Anyone who knows me knows that I am much more likely to be picking up a shinty stick than a golf club, but any member of the public can get a tee time for the links course in St Andrews. There is now far more recognition of women’s golf than ever before, although work on that front is still ongoing, and an increasingly strong emphasis on accessibility, as I saw last year when I attended part of the Phoenix cup, disability golf’s equivalent of the Ryder cup. I was pleased that the organisers, including Scottish Disability Golf & Curling, were able to go ahead with the tournament, in the face of huge logistical challenges.

When we put all these things together, we see that it is no wonder that Fife and St Andrews are the No. 1 destinations on many a golfer’s bucket list. From April to October, tourists, predominantly from overseas and particularly from North America, travel to Fife and contribute to our local economy. A whole ecosystem is built up around golf tourism. Of course that means the golf clubs, but it also means the inbound tour operators, who arrange tee times, hotels and travel for many international tourists; the minibus drivers; the caddies; the B&Bs; the guest houses and hotels; the brilliant local restaurants; our fantastic Fife distilleries; and all their employees and suppliers. Every pound spent by a golf tourist has a huge multiplier effect. Up to 100 golf facilities attract almost all overseas golf tourists to Scotland and generate at least £300 million in revenues. As the House can imagine, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the impact on clubs, small business owners, the people of my constituency and other areas around Scotland and the UK where golf plays an important part was huge.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way in what is a brilliant speech so far; I look forward to the rest of it. I stress that although I may be the proxy of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) tonight, I speak in my own capacity as the Member for North Antrim.

Golf tourism in Northern Ireland is, as the hon. Member has indicated in respect of other parts of the UK, absolutely stunning. It has changed the economy, especially in North Antrim and other parts of the country. In fact, we look forward to the return of the ISPS Handa cup, the Northern Ireland Open, the Irish Open and, indeed, the Open in the foreseeable future. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government must get behind promoting and developing golf tourism, because it is one of the key ways in which we will lift our economy post covid?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have already made my apologies, via the hon. Gentleman, to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for the fact that my physical participation this evening has prevented him from contributing virtually. Yes, I absolutely agree: obviously, I believe that Fife and St Andrews are top of any golfer’s bucket list, but clearly all parts of the UK are. We are a worldwide leader in the sport.

Golf tourism’s particular reliance on international tourism—and particularly on American tourists, who were subject to quarantine restrictions—meant that in effect the 2020 season was sadly over before it began. That has had a particular impact on inbound tour operators, many of which operate in my constituency. Last year, I organised a roundtable with the Scottish Incoming Golf Tour Operators Association—SIGTOA—and a number of local operators, and they told me of the difficulties they had faced over the previous months.

One tour operator said to me,

“as of yesterday and today, I have received two separate cancellations from Australian groups who had rescheduled from this year to 2021…Yet again this is a prime example that Golf Tourism and our businesses are being crippled, and will continue to be crippled, not just for 6 months but what is likely to be 18-24 months.”

Another Fife-based company told me:

“With nearly 40 years in package tourism, we have experienced a number of challenges as the business was affected by various national and international events. We simply battened down the hatches and worked through it all, using our own resources and never a penny piece of public money.

Our company (as with those of our fellow operators) has proved very resilient—but Covid is stress-testing that resilience to breaking point.”

The picture for them is pretty bleak.

It is worth mentioning that, under the current restrictions in Scotland, people can play golf, with very strict limitations. When the all-party parliamentary group on golf, of which I am a vice-chair, shared information on this debate on social media, many people got in touch regarding the current restrictions in Wales, England and Northern Ireland, which exclude golf from the sports currently permitted. I hope the Minister will be able to indicate what plans the Government have for golf’s reopening.

Part of the difficulty is that financial support is not getting to where it needs to—and this applies not just to tour operators but across the sector. For instance, the furlough has been less useful in an industry in which there is much seasonal employment and self-employment, as I have said previously in Parliament. In some respects, clubs themselves have had the best of it, particularly those whose business models are weighted towards membership, as subscriptions can be utilised to retain staff and maintain the facilities. Clearly, though, there will be pressures on subscriptions going forward, and many clubs have a mixed business model in which visitor income plays a significant part. Crail Golfing Society was founded in 1786 and is the seventh oldest club in the world; it lost £600,000 in visitor revenue in 2020.

Scottish Government support has not always hit the mark either. Back in May, I met golf clubs from across Fife, and they explained that many of them were ineligible for business grants because their rateable values were too high as a result of the land taken up by the courses. They needed support but were sadly excluded.

I was contacted by one constituent who runs a golf tourism business in St Andrews. Some 95% of his customers are from America. He provides travel services, but because his business is vehicles, he does not have premises or pay rates, which means he is not classed as part of the tourism and hospitality sector. He has found himself excluded from support. He told me:

“My business is highly reliant on”—


“being open and available as I am part of the tourist supply chain for some major hotels and premises in St business has had no clients at all in 2020.”

It is clear that there are huge challenges.

I welcomed the Scottish Government’s December announcement of further support for tourism and hospitality, including a specific fund for inbound tour operators, but that money was initially promised on 9 December and the fund opened for offers of interest only last week. January is a challenging month at the best of times, and I doubt that any operator will receive money until February—that is two months after the first announcement.

At least support for Scottish operators is on its way. The UK Government are yet to provide specific funding for inbound tour operators, so I encourage the Minister to engage with UKinbound’s proposals for a £45 million resilience fund. That surely is an investment worth making, given that normally, international visitors contribute £28 billion to the UK economy every year and support half a million jobs directly. That would have an impact on my constituency too, because lots of UK-wide operators run tours that incorporate England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland.

The need for support has only increased following today’s announcement about tightening border restrictions. Back in the autumn, the whole focus for clubs, operators and businesses was, “Let’s make it through to the 2021 season.” March and April 2021 promised a potential return to viability. That expectation only increased following the incredibly positive news in November about the development and approval of covid-19 vaccines. Now, as we administer hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses a day, the prospect of relaxing restrictions when the warmer weather is here looks more possible.

The sector had been positive. Operators’ assessment of the situation has been that the demand for international customers is very much there if people can find a safe and direct way to travel. Operators previously hoped that that would be secured by a combination of the vaccine roll-out and increased testing. Clearly, it is much more challenging now. Quite simply, if the 2021 season is also cancelled due to travel restrictions, as seems increasingly likely, then unless further support is given, many of the businesses I have mentioned will have to close.

That is true not just for tour operators but for many of those businesses that rely on the income generated by those tourists. Let me give another example. I was contacted by a very small tourism business operating in St Andrews and all over Scotland. My constituent and her husband drive golfers and tourists about, and they work for three different tour operators. They are currently on universal credit and previously received a self-employment support grant. She told me:

“I see that foreign travel may not happen til 2022. Being as our business depends on foreign travel there is no way without adequate funding we can make it til 2022. So it’s about time we heard some facts so people can decide about their business as we are just getting into untold debt and don’t know what to do.”

Yesterday, in the urgent question on border restrictions, I told the Home Secretary that what business operators and the public needed was clarity, certainty and notice. Given the expectation that the Scottish Government are considering more stringent travel restrictions, coupled with the Home Secretary’s subsequent statement today, I am concerned that we have none of those things.

Uncertainty is corrosive to these businesses, and it is a huge source of stress and anxiety to small business owners across the country. As we marked the tragic threshold of 100,000 deaths in the UK yesterday, I appreciate how fine the margins of such decisions are and the ongoing need to ensure public health, but I hope that the Minister can set out the likely considerations for a return to international tourism.

With the new travel restrictions, clubs and businesses that rely on international tourism face an increasingly bleak picture for summer 2021. With the prospect of domestic restrictions being lifted as the population is vaccinated, the Government must commit to supporting the golf industry, which relies so much on inbound international tourism. We cannot on the one hand start opening up the economy domestically this summer, while on the other failing to provide support to those businesses that rely on inbound tourism. It would be a disaster for so many of them and would potentially devastate the domestic market too.

That means listening to the businesses. One problem that I am aware of is with deposits. Many customers were initially happy to roll over their 2020 bookings into 2021. They have spent money on deposits to secure tickets, bookings, hotel accommodation—all manner of things—for trips this summer. The businesses do not currently have or hold that money. If customers start to cancel, the Government will need to support inbound tourism businesses that are struggling to return those deposits. They will also need to support the golf clubs that were relying on the prospect of inbound tourism this summer.

There is a real opportunity here. If these businesses survive until summer 2022, we will hopefully see the Open return to St Andrews for its 150th edition. That will be a huge opportunity for celebration, but if we are going to get there, the Government need to take those steps on clarity, support and listening to the concerns and needs of businesses in the sector. If the Government can do that, we can make sure that the fantastic, vibrant golf businesses of the home of golf and elsewhere across the UK make it through their biggest challenge yet. I urge the Government to listen and to take those steps, and I hope that the Minister will be able to meet me and businesses in my constituency to discuss what further steps might be taken.

It is a pleasure to respond on the Government’s behalf to this debate on golf tourism, which fits neatly within my portfolio as the Minister for both sport and tourism, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing it. She spoke eloquently and with passion and knowledge about all dimensions of tourism and golf. She gave us a good history of golf, which I very much appreciated, and I particularly appreciated her highlighting the increasing importance of women’s golf and disability golf.

I make it clear from the outset that tourism and sport are devolved matters, meaning that the devolved Administrations are responsible for any targeted policy intervention in their respective nations, but, as the hon. Lady pointed out, a number of matters are also UK-wide, so I will talk broadly.

I will start by highlighting the valuable contribution of sport to the UK tourism sector before moving on to address the current pandemic’s impact on inbound tourism and the Government’s response. Turning to the second half of the debate, or perhaps I should say the back nine, I will summarise the Government’s work to help sports clubs through this period and reiterate our commitment to reopening golf courses and other sports facilities as soon as the broader health situation allows. That is absolutely our goal, which I know is shared by all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The UK’s sporting calendar is recognised as one of our greatest tourism assets. In 2017, the last year for which we have detailed figures available, over 2 million visitors attended a live sporting event as part of their trip to the UK, accounting for 6% of all visits that year. In particular, 18,000 of these international visitors watched a live golf event during their stay, perhaps in the hon. Lady’s constituency, spending at least £30 million.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) will appreciate my saying that the Open championship, held in Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland in 2019, served as a major tourist draw, and he mentioned how important tourism and golf tourism are for Northern Ireland.

As well as attending prestigious events, international visitors also come here to get involved in the sporting action themselves. Over 350,000 inbound visitors played golf during a trip to the UK in 2017, spending about £418 million, which is an immense sum and hence the importance of this debate. Given the stunning scenery to be found right across the country, golf tourists are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing where to go for a round, although I am sure that many will have made the pilgrimage to St Andrews in the constituency of the hon. Member for North East Fife.

In England, the £45 million Discover England fund has helped businesses to tap into the lucrative golf tourism market. The Golf Tourism England project, in particular, helps businesses to create bookable itineraries aimed at international audiences, connecting visitors with destinations across the country.

Although I wish I could use this speech to point to an upward trend in golf tourism, we all know that the events of the past year have clearly overshadowed proceedings. Inbound tourism was one of the first industries to be hit by covid, with the effects on bookings and confidence felt even before we entered the first lockdown last March. The subsequent drop in international arrivals had a devastating impact on tourism businesses and suppliers—in this case, the tour operators, the coach drivers, the hotels and many other businesses that contribute to delivering the golf tourism experience, as the hon. Lady articulated.

The Government acted quickly to help businesses through lockdown with a comprehensive package of support, much of which the hon. Lady mentioned. When the sector reopened in July we took targeted fiscal action to aid the sector further, including cutting the rate of VAT on tourism and hospitality-related activities to 5% until the end of March this year.

Although summer may have gone well for some businesses with a domestic focus, many in this sector, particularly those highly dependent on international travel, continued to struggle and are still struggling. Last autumn, to help chart a path forward for these businesses, the Transport Secretary launched a global travel taskforce to consider what steps the Government could take to enable the safe and sustainable recovery of international travel.

In November, the taskforce published its report outlining 14 recommendations focused on ensuring clear public health measures, increasing demand safely and taking the lead on global standards. My Department, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, continues to work closely with the Department for Transport on progressing these recommendations, including the development of a tourism recovery plan, which we are currently working on, and, at the appropriate time, running a flagship overseas marketing campaign to promote the UK as an attractive and safe place to visit.

I am following closely the serious points that the Minister is making. In order to assist golf courses and, indeed, people and their wellbeing at the present time, and while he is on that holy ground of golf tonight, may I tell him that people do not yet appreciate why they can walk around supermarkets and be in close contact with many people, yet they cannot walk out in the fresh air and golf in a socially distanced, safe way that would keep their local course open? Can he explain that and help us to get out of this pandemic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. Of course, nobody wanted to close down golf courses. It is vital that we let people get out and exercise. The problem was that we would have had confusing messages. The fundamental clear message is to stay at home unless you have to leave for certain reasons or for a limited number of low-impact exercises, and there would have been confusing messages had we done anything else. As I say, the goal is to try to get golf and other sports open as soon as possible; that is absolutely the shared aim.

Before we can welcome back international visitors, we first need to help the tourism sector through the final stretch of the pandemic. At a UK-wide level, the Chancellor has implemented further support for businesses and individuals in the light of the winter’s heightened restrictions, including extending various Government-backed loans as well as extending the furlough and self-employed schemes. In England, the Chancellor has also announced one-off top-up grants for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses worth up to £9,000 per property, plus a further £594 million discretionary fund to support other impacted businesses. That builds on the £1.1 billion discretionary fund that local authorities in England have already received to help impacted businesses.

The guidance for these additional restrictions grants encourages local authorities to develop discretionary schemes to help those businesses that are perhaps not legally forced to close but are none the less severely impacted by the restrictions put in place to control the spread of covid. These could include, for example, businesses that supply the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors or businesses in the events sector. On this point, I have received a number of reports that some tourism-related businesses, which might not be ratepayers and are not explicitly mentioned in the guidance on these grant schemes, are being deemed ineligible by some local authorities. To be clear to those local authorities and those businesses, although the ultimate decision is at the local authority’s discretion, the fund can, and in my opinion certainly should, be used to provide grants to tour operators, coach operators, school travel companies, English language schools, event organisers and similar businesses, all of which serve as vital facilitators to the tourism industry even if they do not sell to consumers directly on a specific premise. I therefore encourage and expect local authorities to be sympathetic to applications from those businesses and others that have been impacted by covid-19 restrictions but are ineligible for the other grant schemes. We had a debate on a similar issue with funfairs and other sectors in Westminster Hall recently.

We also know that these remain incredibly challenging conditions for the golf clubs themselves. No Government would want to be in a position of needing to close sports facilities such as golf courses. Golf has great reach across society, as people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities can take part in the game. It brings people together to experience the outdoors and enjoy nature, and makes great contributions to mental health.

Golf courses were one of the first sports facilities to be reopened following the initial lockdown, and they were able to stay open in the local tiered restrictions, including and up to tier 4; however, the current spread of the virus risks the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed, which we cannot allow to happen. That is why the current national lockdown was introduced. I understand the frustrations of those who are desperate to get back on the course. As I said, we want to get them back on the courses as soon as possible and start lifting restrictions, and grassroots sports will be among the first to return.

To support the return of grassroots sport, including golf courses, the Government have supported businesses through unprecedented pan-economic measures, on top of the funding that Sport England has provided, which represents over £220 million in direct support for the sport and physical activity sector, with £35 million set aside as a community emergency fund. In addition, just yesterday Sport England published its strategy “Uniting the Movement”, as part of which it has committed an extra £50 million to help grassroots sports clubs and organisations affected by the pandemic. Further information on how to apply to those funds will be released shortly, and I am aware that similar funds are available in other parts of the country.

Golf tourism is a hugely valuable activity, which supports a whole chain of tourism businesses and jobs. We will continue to engage with tourism sector stakeholders as we look into how we can most effectively support the inbound sector through covid and beyond, and we hope to share our tourism recovery plan in due course. I would be delighted to have a meeting with the hon. Lady, as she requested, and I assure all hon. Members that the Government overall are listening and will continue to work with stakeholders on ideas further to support all strands of inbound tourism.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.