The state of golf in Italy

By Sean Dudley

Golf remains unknown to many Italians, but for some years, the profile of the game has been increasing.

TV, newspapers, advertising and sporting events all help to spread the image of the sport, and the interest shown among a variety of social classes is confirmed by requests for more information about golf courses during events such as Italian trade fairs and the Italian Open. But this shouldn't lead observers to believe the golf boom that hit in Europe in the 70s and 80s is now starting in Italy. Thanks to incentives by the European Union (EU) and by individual countries, that boom led to specific tourist development policies including golf courses.

Italy has 241 courses of nine or more holes, and 97 practice courses with three to six holes, mainly located in the north and central parts of the country. In a typical year, between three and six new courses and eight to ten new practice courses are built. In 2006 there were 84,000 players, an increase of 3,000 on the previous year.

About one in 700 Italians is a golfer, whereas in France and Germany the ratio is one in 165 and in England one in 64.

In Sweden, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland the number is one in 16. There is no need to comment on these figures, which show that golf in Italy is well behind golf development in the rest of Europe. This aspect is even more significant, if we consider that, although Italy has lost some important shares of the tourism market, in the last few years, it has always occupied fifth position in terms of flows linked to art, cinema, culture, and the like.

In the sphere of tourism, the more than 80,000 Italian golfers, most of whom live in the north of the country, occasionally travel abroad in winter to play their favourite sport, and base their holidays in hotel resorts equipped with golf courses.

In Italy, the government and EU incentives to help the development of golf in support of tourism were not grasped, and likewise, the Italian Golf Federation did not practise policies to encourage broadening the base of players. Only one region was sufficiently far sighted to promote the creation of large and small courses, with good results.

Recently, other regions have begun offering incentives to develop golf in tourist areas, but such developments have met with major difficulties in the permitting stage. These delays have put a brake on investments in and the development of golf courses.

Other European countries have typically created well aimed policies for the development of golf, accompanied by the creation of infrastructure such as practice courses, as well as indoor facilities where learning to play golf costs a few hundred euros. In these nations, one is not obliged to become a member of the relevant Federation in order to learn to play and, where a membership card is necessary, it can be bought for a few euros. In Italy, a compromise on membership was only reached this year.

The regions of southern Italy – with their countless landscape, artistic, historical, cultural, culinary and climatic beauties – are a strong tourist attraction, but they have no golf complexes to support efforts in this regard.

But now the necessary conditions for significant developments in golf tourism are being put in place. The first foreign investors are building hotels and accommodation in Sicily, including adjoining golf courses – Sir Rocco Forte's Verdura development is the biggest example. Other Italian entrepreneurs are beginning to believe in golf-linked tourism and are arranging studies leading to the creation of new hotels and accommodation structures with more golf courses.

However, the obstacles to overcome remain the long time it takes to obtain permits (one of my clients is still awaiting an answer after 14 years), as well as the false prejudices which still exist toward golf. Many Italians still see golf a sport for the rich which destroys the environment, rather than a tourist activity with significant economic benefits that can also protect the environment.

In the near future, I believe that golf in Italy will develop through the creation of new courses spread along our more than 2,000km of coastline, and also in our beautiful lake and mountain tourism areas.

My conviction is supported by the numerous requests for preliminary studies for new courses received by my office. Furthermore, some local public administrations are becoming aware that golf development creates opportunities for the socio-economic development of their areas, and very recently, some local authorities have begun to promote golf courses without economically burdening the community.

But planning restrictions remain significant. With this in mind, those wishing to create golf courses and related infrastructure must bear in mind the need for qualified and recognised professional advice, from golf architects, planning consultants and the like. This manner of operating enables immediate evaluation of an investment's validity and protects against disastrous defaults which often occur due to a lack of professionalism or preparations at the survey stage.

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