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Three Strikes for the Japanese Golf Industry


[Editor's Note: The following was provided by Bennett "Ben" Galloway, the director of golf and teaching professional at Gotemba (www.gotembagolf.com) and Belle View Nagao golf clubs (www.belleviewn-gc.com) in Japan. Galloway writes "Bennett's Column" for Outdoor Japan's "Golf in Japan" publication (http://www.golf-in-japan.com/bennetts.php). With Bennett's permission, we're republishing his observations for how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami affected that nation's golf industry and his call for help within the Land of the Rising Sun.]

You are all well aware of the catastrophes that hit Japan on March 11, 2011. Our hearts go out to all those who lost family members and loved ones. The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that followed struck the shores of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, sealing the fate of not only some 30,000 unsuspecting people, but also affecting the livelihood of the whole country, including that of the entire Japanese golf industry.

Internationally, the Japanese golf industry was poised for a great comeback year. With the recent light shone on it at the International Golf Tourism Market held in Valencia Spain in November last year, the local industry was at the starting line of something big. The Japan exhibit received a warm welcome and created quite a stir even with only two Japanese IAGTO (International Association of Golf Tour Operators) members. The Japanese market has been basically closed to the world with its 2,340-plus courses shrouded in mystery, making it the possible and probable, breakout destination for 2011. [Note: Japan was attending for the first time ever, thanks to a much-needed nod from the Japan Tourism Agency and its recently created sports tourism branch.]

Domestically, things were tight before March 11th, with remnants of the so-dubbed "Lehman Shock" of 2008 lingering and keeping the economy and golf industry in a downward spiral. With only recent hints of a turnaround, this long-term shrinking of the industry and actual rounds played has forced the majority of clubs to pass that reality on to their employees. Minimum salaries, regardless of experience or expertise, have become the industry norm. The harsh reality is that families who invest their livelihood in this industry don't have very far to go to find despair. Few company employees (shaiin) still exist here as in the past, with most front-line staff and caddies on part-time contracts; i.e., no guarantee of a salary should they not get a round or "loop." For many of them, including countless single mothers who often caddie just to get by, March 11th was their last day of work.

The golf industry here in Japan is, and always has been, about the people. Most working in it are not here for the money but for the love of the game and the possibility of getting in a few holes after work. Nowhere in the world can you find the level of dedication to their jobs that they show every day in Japan. The problem is, looking forward, with the gloom of a three-punch disaster - earthquake and tsunami followed by a nuclear incident - the hopes of international golf tourism taking hold here are gone for the short to mid-term, at best. Regardless of the courses' proximity to the disaster-struck areas, nuclear radiation just isn't something any country's image can bounce back from easily. Without swift closure to the nuclear issue people will just choose to travel and play golf elsewhere. In an industry where perception equals reality, a discerned preemptive effort from the Japanese tourism authorities is needed. The sensationalist coverage by many in the world media has spun this disaster into a major PR issue for Japan.

After the December 26, 2004, earthquakes and tsunami that hit the Andaman Coast of Thailand, the tourism authorities there kicked into high gear with an aggressive marketing campaign that emphasized the need for tourists to return to these devastated areas. The resumption of tourism was key to helping the local people get their lives back. Customers simply patronizing their businesses, resorts, restaurants, hotels and yes, golf courses, were able to make a real difference. There were many features and case studies written after that disaster on exactly this topic that should now be seen as resources. Here is a link to one example: http://www.entrepreneur.com/tradejournals/article/154005162.html.

The sad truth is that the ripple effect in the golf industry has caused a full stop, affecting the entire country's courses, regardless of geographical location to or from the three affected prefectures. So a single mother who caddies part-time in Kyoto at a course that has seen zero effect from the radiation, earthquakes or tsunami, can't pay her bills for the next six months as customers just aren't showing up. The affected Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures have a total of 126 courses between them, making up approximately 5 percent of the courses in Japan. Although important, they are just a small part of the larger picture.

In an attempt to counter this disaster, many clubs all over Japan are looking to not only help out with fundraising for charities on the ground in the disaster-stricken areas, but also to increase rounds at their courses to help their own staff get back on their feet. Let's face it, the majority of your green fee doesn't go to the club, it goes to the people who work there and to the upkeep of the course that makes it all viable.

Taking part in a charity golf program for disaster relief, or just getting out there again is the best thing you can do to help the people in the industry get beyond this brutal situation . . . and hey, it's frankly a fun way to help out! It is for this reason that I urge you to help save the industry by getting your friends and golfing buddies together and going out for a round at your favorite course. Get a caddie and why not ask if there is a single mom in the group? I'll bet there is, and don't forget to give her a generous tip.

The Japanese are a resilient and hard-working people who, with the help of all of us working together, will survive. So in the not-so-distant future, stay tuned for great and exciting things from an industry and people that may be down, but are by no means out.