Everyone working in responsible tourism can learn something from watching golf

golf and sustainabilityTwo very different events took place in Scotland last weekend with lessons for anyone working to develop responsible tourism. One was a gathering of activists and environmentalists for the New Story Summit at the Findhorn Foundation. The other was the biennial golf competition between USA and Europe known as the Ryder Cup.

FIndhorn New Story Summit 2014
Participants gathered at the Findhorn New Story Summit

The purpose behind the Findhorn Summit is summed up on the event’s homepage: ‘If we do not create a positive, realistic picture of the future, we will not live into it.‘ Ask most people who follow golf for a ‘realistic picture of the future’ of their sport, and they will rattle off names like Rory Mclroy or Rickie Fowler. Ask the same question to those who focus on making tourism more sustainable and you will get a very different reply. According to Tourism Concern, an average golf course in a country like Thailand needs 1,500kg of chemicals per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers. Golf is rarely seen as having much to offer narratives for a sustainable future.

However, turning away does not solve problems. There are over 18,300 golf courses in the US, covering over 2.7m acres. Worldwide the industry grew 9.3 per cent in 2012, with an estimated global market of £9.6bn. Golf is not about to stop.

I know the problems that beset the sport. And while pesticide legislation and rules on water extraction will continue to tighten, and ecogolf tees and biodegradeable balls will become more available, this is not the answer. To focus solely on reducing these negatives limits golf’s future to retelling the same old story, just as much as it does when golfers consider the artificial Augusta look of over-manicured, vivid greens the ideal. These approaches reinforce binary opposites – the golfers wanting unnaturally manicured courses. The activists decrying their elitism. The narrative is confrontational, negative and devoid of shared vision. In golf, as in all walks of life, we have – like those gathering at Findhorn – to develop new stories that can inspire those who wake up on a saturday morning and fancy a round.

Reading the greens

Kau Sai Chau was fonce a military driving range causing extensive erosion. A revegetation program has returned these areas to their natural landscape through the planting and regeneration of indigenous vegetation.

To reduce the volume of treated wastewater dumped onto the reefs off Florida’s Boca Raton, Broken Sound Club now filters reclaimed water from the city through its golf courses. The club also turns all biodegradable waste into organic mulch, which is spread on the fairways, saving $12,000 on fertilizer expenditure in year one.

In  Portugal, the Belas Clube de Campo collects all course runoff into lakes for re-use for irrigation, eliminating negative impacts on water quality. And at Madrid’s Centro Nacional de Golf, a 43 hectare former landfill site has been transformed into an ecologically rich zone featuring restored grasslands and wetlands and providing employment to hundreds of local people. Regenerating such environments costs money, and people pay a lot more money for a round of golf than a walk in the park.

In other words, golf does not have to be a good walk spoiled. It can invigorate those taking part even more than it already does, while restoring the environments in which they play. Socially, it can go beyond begrudgingly admitting female members. It can aspire to be like De Zalze in South Africa, the first course in the world to be recognised as Fair Trade in Tourism.

Even Gleneagles, home of this year’s Ryder Cup is upping its game. Over 70% of materials are being re-used or recycled, while a woodchip powered biomass boiler provides 74% of hotel heating. Furthermore, £250,000 of the event’s proceeds are to be donated to four outreach projects designed to further improve the local area’s environment, including a zero waste project, a scheme to preserve endangered conifers, and support for the John Muir Trust’s efforts to conserve wild places and peatlands.

The best example of this ‘positive, realistic picture’ of golf is happening at a course called Machrihanish Dunes, also in Scotland. The only course ever created on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it covers 259 acres, yet only seven were disturbed during construction. Only the tees and greens were shaped and they are also the only areas to be irrigated, using abstracted groundwater. As they are sand-based, they do not require drainage, are mown by hand, with the greens fed a seaweed-based feed.

Support is given to local crofters, who graze 300 sheep between October and April to keep the rough trimmed. Trial plots planted around the course showed an increase in diversity from six plant species to 18 in just one year. All the golf course furniture was made from materials sourced locally such as barrels from the nearby whisky distillery.

Like all great stories, it’s no good if no one tells it. At Machrihanish Dunes, however, as players take the 10 minute minibus ride from clubhouse to the first tee, a video explains the course’s vison. Considering the golfers then spend three hours exploring the grasses, trees, sand and mounds that make up this course, there’s plenty of opportunity for this new story to sink in. If a sport like golf can start rewriting its future, then so can every sector of tourism. We just need to work together.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. Sally B says:

    What a lovely positive story! I had no idea of the upsides to golf tourism, so let’s hope many more read this- thanks for sharing! (And I really like those lawnmowers).

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