Will the Gulf tee off?

With so many possibilities for niche tourism in the Middle east, golf tourism is perhaps one of the best opportunities for good business.

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By  John Irish Published  September 2, 2003

|~||~||~|Anybody for a round of golf? In the space of ten years golf has turned its image around. With the likes of Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia making the sport trendier, less elitist and helping expand its global image, the Arab World is getting a feel for the game. From Morocco to Syria and the UAE, the lucrative golf tourism industry is establishing itself in the region.

The Arab Golf Federation (AGF), established in 1974, claims to have 15 Arab member nations with a variety of national, regional and international competitions to attract golf enthusiasts.

Likewise, events with global appeal, such as the Dubai Desert Classic and the European PGA Qatar Masters Golf tournament are placing the Gulf’s golfing greens in the limelight.

“The potential is enormous. I don’t suppose anybody can really estimate it, [especially] if you take into account the weather conditions and the fact that it’s generally accessible from anywhere in the world,” says Roger Jones, owner of Greenscape, which provides golf course design, development & management services.

That the Gulf is seeing an expansion of this sector is of no real surprise. There are around 25,000 golf courses across the globe, an area as large as Belgium. Golf development is among the fastest growing type of land development in the world. As more popular golfing destinations such as the US, Europe and the Far East became saturated, developers look to emerging markets with space for expansion.

The deserts of the Gulf are a perfect destination. The fact that the Gulf’s tourism infrastructure is expanding, particularly in the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, means that hotels in particular are looking for a piece of the action.

South East Asia is a prime example. As the number of tourists increased, so did the number of golf courses. In the 1970s, the region had just 45 courses, by 2001 there were over 500. In Malaysia and Thailand alone, the number exceeds the 300 mark.
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It remains difficult to ascertain how many play golf in the Arab world, partly due to countries not keeping records and registration figures, with the exception of Dubai and Egypt. However, the large expatriate community in the region is an indicator that golf will expand in much the same way as in the Far East.

“From the tourist point of view, golf courses are definitely attractions and one thing people complain about in the Gulf is that there’s not enough to do,” says Guy Standish Wilkinson, an independent hotel development consultant based in Dubai.

“While there may be too many in Dubai, in other destinations where there is one or none they could do with more. I think the more there are, the better for international tourists,” he adds.

While political instability in the region may be holding back the speed of the expansion, Dubai and Egypt are steadily moving ahead. Both offer quality hospitality standards for tourists and the number of courses means that a golfing tourist has variety similar to the European market.

However, for these two nations to really turn themselves into alternatives to the rest of the world, support from other countries is imperative. Part of the Far East’s success is related to the proximity between golf courses, thus offering the customer a range of choices. Greenscape’s Jones points to the Algarve and Costa del Sol as the perfect example of this.

Mohammed Al Attar, secretary general of the AGF, agrees with this. He adds that to offer the same sort of variety, the region needs to club together and promote itself as one destination. “We need to come together. When people come for golf tourism they need to have a lot of courses [close by], because if you’re coming for a golf vacation, you don’t want to play on the same course all the time. I think Dubai is a lot more advanced in this area. It needs a lot more work and discussion to attract people to come here,” says Al Attar.

However, with this expansion of golfing infrastructure comes a price. It may impact the region’s landscape negatively. Over development, with each luxury hotel perhaps opting to have its own course, is definitely a concern.

Nevertheless, ongoing regional instability, coupled with the different stages of development in the region, would suggest that it is more likely that courses will emerge over a longer time frame compared with the speedy expansion across the world.
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Ken Mcintyre, general manager of The Montgomerie Dubai golf course is quick to point out that the emirate is going in the right direction.
“There’s always that danger [over development]. It happened in the US, but we’re not there yet. You have anticipated growth with the Palm Island projects and the residences on Sheikh Zayed Road [main highway in Dubai].”

Promoting the region, however, is another problem. At present, the region has a dearth of tour operators looking at the golf sector. In Egypt, the number of courses over the last few years has steadily increased, including five in Cairo itself. Despite this, the land of the Pharaohs still has only one active tour operator that focuses on this tourism.

Dubai may be a little different. Almost all its advertising campaigns are peppered with golf courses. Khaled bin Sulayem, director of the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing office, told Arabian Business that it is imperative for golf clubs to attend international travel road shows and events to make people aware of the emirate’s golf tourism.

Nevertheless, on a global scale, plenty of work needs to be done to encourage non-golf experts to come to the region to play the sport.
“Operators we deal with tend to send people over on specialist golf holidays,” explains Sean Green, general manager of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO).

“However, I’m sure there is quite a large incremental market for holidays with golf, as opposed to golf specific holidays, perhaps more in Egypt because there are other obvious attractions than places such as Dubai, Qatar or Abu Dhabi.”

As golf tourism does develop in the region, one factor that will inevitably come to the fore is the use of water. The lack of rain means that a golf course can use up to 3,000 cubic metres per day, which is enough to meet the needs of 15,000 people.

The availability and quality of water is the first consideration. For golf courses to run well anywhere they must have reasonable water quality. At the moment there are three different types of water. One is potable, one is treated sewage water, which isn’t as clean, but which allows grass to grow, while the third option is grass growing from salt water.

With the increase in anti-golf movements and criticism from environmentalist groups, more and more clubs are looking to adopt the latter.

Likewise, the cost of equipment, personnel and water treatment facilities are also substantial. Irrigation systems in the Middle East can be three times as costly as in Europe. Ground conditions differ meaning that chemicals are sometimes more expensive.
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“You can counter that by the fact that labour is less expensive and a lot of jobs that would only get done mechanically in northern Europe do get done manually because it’s cheaper to do it,” says Jones.

Will these projects bring in money? Despite apparent spiralling costs in maintaining these courses and the fact that golf tourists to the region will inevitably take more time to fill the courses, operators and golf experts seem unfazed and confidant that the projects are feasible.

They argue that once the development is complete the costs are not as great as would seem. That is, as long as the construction costs are offset with integration into a real estate project. One such property is the Montgomerie Golf Course and, in particular, its second section, the Emirates Hills, where a home can cost as much as US $20 million.

However, not everybody is convinced that golf is a winner. “Golf courses don’t usually make money in the Middle East, their costs are very high, and their costs are monumental. They use sanitised waste water, which doesn’t smell, but it’s still very expensive and without governments overtly subsidising the courses they couldn’t keep going,” explains Guy Standish Wilkinson.

He does, however, agree that real estate with golf is more likely to succeed. “The only way they can make sense is by building houses around them either for rent or for sale so that the golf course becomes a loss leader for a successful real estate business.”
Much of the criticism of golf tourism lies in the environmental issues.

On the surface, a golf course may appear as an incredible piece of landscaping, but the beauty found in the setting of a golf course often hides many of the environmental, social and health problems.

“Very often, golf courses have flattened down the nature to make the design right, especially in American style golf courses. So what you’ll find with these styles of courses, hills, sand dunes is that the topography of a place is absolutely flattened,” says Tourism Concern’s Barnett.

Additionally, golf courses also need large quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, which groups such as the anti-golf movement claim have caused health problems among golfers, workers and nearby residents.

While it is too early to say whether these issues will directly affect golf tourism in the region, these are factors that must be taken into consideration. One way of doing this could be through the IAGTO. Recently, for example, it recommended to the Mauritius tourism board that certain golf projects should be stopped on ecological grounds.

Montgomerie’s Ken McIntyre sums up the situation. He acknowledges that environmental groups do have a case in the third world, but ultimately, those invvolved are increasingly becoming conscious of the wildlife and the landscape that’s around them.

“Generally, golf courses that are managed properly actually add to the environment as opposed to detracting from it. Granted, some of the desert land is lost and some disruption happens, but a lot of the projects must make sure that they don’t do anything like that,” he says.

All in all, the regional golf sector still has much work to do to attract substantial revenue. With the elitist tag often associated with golf in Anglo-Saxon countries not as prevalent in the Middle East, the region has an opportunity to open up to many who would not necessarily take up the sport.

Additionally, as golf booms globally, the financial resources available in the region, coupled with a responsible development programme, may well turn the area into a leading golfing destination. If on the other hand, it fails to heed mistakes made across the globe, the development of golf courses may become a slow and painful process.
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