The ski industry as a lesson for golf

A sport completely dependent on nature: this characteristic applies to skiing just as it does to golf, which is why both sports are highly affected by the consequences of climate change and the discussion about how to conduct the sport as sustainably as possible.

At the start of the 2023/2024 World Cup season last weekend, skiing was gripped by a heated discussion about the extent to which the World Cup season, with its early start in October, needs to be adapted to climate change and moved back a few weeks. “The question that hovers over everything in the end,” explained ex-ski racer Felix Neureuther at a press conference, is “Do I really still have to cling to that last bit of glacier nostalgia? Or do I recognize the problems of our time and try to show that we ski racers are also prepared to make our contribution to contemporary racing?”

Positive image of a nature sport is a thing of the past

The golf scene should take a look at skiing. In a way, it provides a best practice case in terms of what needs to be done to be seen as an unsustainable leisure activity to an ever-increasing extent in the media and in the public eye, despite the fact that individual ski destinations are working on sustainability concepts to a high degree.

For many years, skiing was the sport that in advertising and the media stood for concepts such as freedom, the experience of nature, the desire for speed and risk, but also relaxation and health. At least when we talk about the concepts of experiencing nature, relaxation and health, this also applies to golf.

If you look at the media coverage of skiing over the past five years, follow social media posts and listen to podcasts, you will increasingly come across other topics: Water and energy consumption during skiing are being discussed, as are the high CO₂ emissions during travel to ski resorts, the destruction of nature by new lift constructions, and newly developed slopes. This was compounded in the past two years by the increased cancellation of World Cup events that could not be held due to excessively high temperatures and lack of snow. Top skiers such as U.S. star Mikaela Shiffrin opposed the FIS and its handling of the climate change issue. On top of that, the FIS itself caused a scandal by declaring itself “climate positive” and exposing itself to accusations of greenwashing by purchasing certificates from non-governmental organizations.

The ski tourist himself then supports the negative image with impressive pictures of snow bands between brown meadow slopes, which he films with his Go-Pro camera during his holiday in the Alps. The impact of holiday activities such as heli-skiing, which also do not generate enthusiasm among environmentalists, should not even be mentioned. In short, the image of skiing is not at its best.

Compared to this, golf is still in a comparatively good position. After all, hundreds of golf courses have left a positive impression in recent years with their biodiversity projects, among other things. Nevertheless, some lessons can be learned for the future by drawing a comparison with skiing and the ski industry:

  • The tolerance level of the non-golfing public for the construction of new golf facilities should not be overestimated. We’re not talking about golf courses like America’s Whistling Straits or Scotland’s Kingsbarns, which were built on land that had been used for agricultural, military or industrial purposes. Rather, we are talking about golf courses that are being built in areas that conservationists consider valuable. Dune areas, for example, or forests. Trump Aberdeen’s championship course on partly valuable coastal land is just one negative example from the past.
  • The deforestation of areas for fairways and greenways, comparable to ski slopes, is currently being discussed with caution, especially in countries that rely heavily on tourism, such as Portugal, or have large unpopulated areas, such as New Zealand. There is hardly any talk about the carbon footprint of building such golf courses. But the look at the social media posts generated most recently by the expansion of the Gran Becca run on the Theodul glacier near Zermatt shows: The reaction can change into the negative direction fast. A thoughtful selection of new construction areas for golf facilities is always necessary. The environmental balance sheet of a golf course includes not only the positive measures that are added during construction, but also has to consider, what is removed during construction. Early communication and careful consideration of locations for new golf facilities is needed.
  • The topic of water consumption is a perennial issue not only in skiing but also in golf. It is extremely emotional. The increasing use of drones with cameras flying over ski slopes and golf courses does not contribute to a more objective discussion. Large-scale overview images of ski resorts consisting of white slopes from artificial snow with lots of brown landscape next to them have a hard time appealing to the public. Golf is no different: The Solheim Cup at Finca Cortesin in Spain took place on a golf course that is irrigated with sewage water. This sober explanation hardly strikes a chord with TV viewers when they see flyover images showing deep green fairways in a largely parched landscape. This creates challenges for golf facility communications that need to be addressed.
  • While numerous top ski athletes are now raising their voices for a more sustainable development of the World Cup, no really audible protest has been heard from the professional golfers to date regarding the different circuits in golf. It doesn’t have to stay that way. Things could change if athletes are themselves greatly affected by climate change in their private lives and think about the impact, their profession has on the climate. Involving and informing professionals early on, engaging them in a process of change toward more sustainable golf, could prevent a confrontation later on.
  • The skier doesn’t like to get on a train with helmet, skis and ski boots. Neither does the golfer with his bag. Both the ski slope and the golf course are, on top of that, usually difficult to reach directly by train. The golfer still does not perceive his own mobility, be it to the holiday spot or to the golf club 25 kilometres away, as a problem. The situation is different for numerous skiers who, for example, from the Munich area early in the morning on Saturdays, are concentrated on one of the highways in the direction of Kitzbühel, one of the leading ski resorts in the world in Austria. Some skiers may well question the practice of the sport itself. The thematization of the topic of arrival and departure as well as flight behaviour is absolutely necessary in the sport of golf, which also has a strong tourism component.

Climate change with its short-term weather changes is difficult to calculate. Which is why hoteliers and lift operators in classic ski destinations such as Austria and Switzerland have been staring fearfully at the weather forecasts every November for several years now. In various ski resorts, such as Austria’s Dachstein glacier, lift facilities have already begun to be dismantled. If you want to avoid closing golf courses in regions severely affected by drought or flooding in the long term, you can learn one thing above all from a look at the ski industry: forward planning, foresight and adaptation alone help to prevent crises.