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Thailand, the fairway to heaven
By Sara Schonhardt

HUA HIN, Thailand - Under the shade of its provincial palms, the emerald-green glow of Thailand's major golf resorts is attracting an ever-growing number of recreational tourists, those the country is targeting in the hope that they'll arrive willing to spend their time and their money in the Land of Smiles.

To meet its goal of becoming the tourism capital of Asia, Thailand is welcoming these visitors with open arms. The country is targeting high-end recreational tourists in particular as part of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's (TAT) marketing plan for 2004, seeking to draw what it calls "best-quality tourists".

To these tourists, Thailand has become more than just sun and sand. Evidenced by the numerous billboards that line its main highways, it has become a golfer's paradise. And many come with wallets in hand ready to hit the courses.

Golf was first seriously highlighted in 2000 as a part of the country's Amazing Thailand tourism campaign, which aims to increase tourism revenues to 340 billion baht (US$8.6 billion) this year, according to the TAT. Thailand lured about 10 million international tourists in 2003, generating revenues of 323 billion baht, about 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

As part of this initiative, Thailand Privilege Card Co, a subsidiary of the TAT, will build under its Elite Card program five golf courses on state-owned land in places including Chiang Mai in the north and the beach-resort town of Hua Hin. The Elite Card is part of a government program that aims to attract big spenders to Thailand. Fittingly, the program's website refers to it "the world's first 'country' country club".

In line with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's CEO-style governing tactics, Thailand is taking a corporate approach to drawing "high-quality tourists", according to the TAT. And what better sport than one favored by corporate hot shots the world over?

TAT taps Asia
A pastime frequently associated with Tiger Woods (who is half Thai), Titleist and Johnnie Walker, golf has become a major draw for Thailand, now labeled as one of Asia's premier golfing destinations. And with more than 200 courses currently spread throughout the country, the smell of Bermuda grass pervades the air nearly everywhere here.

During the high season, which runs from November-April, most of the visitors are European, says Michael van Amelsvoort, the resident head professional at Springfield Village, one of Thailand's most prestigious golf resorts on the outskirts of Hua Hin. This year, however, Thailand is seeking tourists from in and around Asia, targeting countries such as Singapore, Japan and Malaysia.

In 2004, Thailand hopes to draw 11 million to 12 million international tourists, according to the TAT, while on the domestic front, the tourism authority hopes to see 67 million trips by Thai tourists throughout the country, with revenues estimated at 362.5 billion baht.

The Asian market is of increasing importance as disease outbreaks, fears of terrorism and regional conflicts reduce the number of visitors from the West. The SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis cut tourist travel in Thailand by 10 percent in 2003, and the outbreak of avian flu early this year resulted in a 13 percent drop in international tourist arrivals in March alone. In addition, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have issued travel warnings prompted by violence in Thailand's south.

Thaksin has played down these warnings, however, and doubts that incidents in the far south will have much of an impact on Phuket and other upscale resorts, which draw the bulk of Thailand's wealthy Western tourists, as well as the creme de la creme of the Thai elite.

A royal tradition
Though Thailand's golfing history is short compared with countries such as Scotland, where golf was conceived, it has long been connected to the country's royal family; Thailand's first and oldest championship 18-hole course, the Royal Hua Hin, was commissioned in 1924 by Prince Kampaengpetch.

The town of Hua Hin took on an added air of aristocracy when King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) later built a summer palace here called Klai Klangwan - "far from worries" - as did the sport of golf itself, played frequently by the then-king and various members of royalty. In those days, Hua Hin was considered the most popular destination for tourists longing for a game of golf, although players often had to contend with tigers and other wildlife that frequently roamed the links.

Though golf remained popular in Thailand, it would be another 60 years before the golf boom began, when, in the early 1990s, courses began sprouting up all over Thailand, a result of the country's economic boom. But even then, tourism had yet to enter the equation in any significant way, and most courses were built for property development (and speculation - trading in golf memberships became a high lucrative "sport" up to the economic collapse of 1997).

Bangkok developers were building the courses because "it seemed to be the fashion", says Frank Gilbride, a member of the British Professional Golf Association (PGA) and the founder of Hua Hin Golf Tours, the first registered golf-tour company in Thailand.

Despite becoming the hot sport for the well-to-do, golf had yet to be targeted for tourism purposes, says Gilbride, who jumped to fill the hole in the burgeoning market, creating Hua Hin Golf Tours with help from the TAT in 1992. Although Hua Hin at that time was just a sleepy little town, it had a royal feel and tradition, he says. Building courses hit a high in the town's environs because it made sense to build where people with money would come.

For 10 years, Hua Hin Golf Tours was mostly alone in the market, but the Amazing Thailand campaign has made the country's connection with the sport increasingly visible among international golfing circles, and in the past three years the market has been flooded.

Playing to the flip side
The reasons for the growth are numerous. Golfing tours give golfers access to international-standard courses and allow tourists to experience Thailand's tropical, rural environment away from the beaches, Gilbride says. In addition, Thailand has a warm year-around climate, cultural distinction and, despite the push for "high-quality tourists", green fees that are far below the international average. In Bangkok, weekday charges can run as low as 100-250 baht (about $3-$6).

Traditional beach resorts, such as Phuket and Pattaya, are more expensive and tend to draw the big spenders the TAT campaign is highlighting. But for now at least, many golfers agree that golfing in Thailand is still priced fairly reasonably. Phuket, which generally has the highest green fees, charges from 1,500-2,500 baht, while green fees at Blue Canyon Country Club, site of the 1994 and 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic, run from 2,600-5,300 baht.

In Hua Hin, where "the pleasure of a golf holiday is not just the golf", Gilbride says, the town is built for players to go and "bore" each other.

"Golfers are a different type of breed from the spa type," he says. "They just want a comfortable bed and a golf course around the corner." They like to go out for a drink and a chat, but other than that, there's really no need to go overboard on accommodation and fare, adds Gilbride, whose company slogan is "managed by golfers for golfers". Rooms at his villa in Hua Hin cost about 1,800 baht ($45) a night during the high season. Top-end accommodation in Hua Hin for five-star hotels and spas can cost as much as 6,000-9,000 baht per night.

More than 90 percent of first-time visitors return, Gilbride says, although it is starting to get a bit expensive because of increasing demand - there are six resorts in Hua Hin alone.

Better business brings big spenders back
Though most of Thailand's golf courses were built to international standards during the mid-1980s and early 1990s - planned by some of the world's leading course designers, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player - construction of the courses came to an abrupt halt with the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98.

Since that time, many have been returned to their post-recessionary standards, as Thailand's economy grew by 5.2 percent last year, its best performance since the crash of 1997. And as the baht continues to climb, more courses are popping up in an effort to maximize on Thaksin's tourism goals.

"Business is going to change," Gilbride says. "There will be more golf courses built here in years to come. As long as courses are well maintained, we have the quality and infrastructure to keep building."

Golf in Thailand is now known on every golfer's lips, it seems, and Hua Hin in particular is making a name for itself. The Thailand Open, a tournament of international standing, was held here in 2000, and Thailand's next major tournament, the Tournament Professional Club (TPC) tour's Singha Open, will be held in June at Springfield, where Heineken is also sponsoring an upcoming tour, resident pro van Amelsvoort says.

While big international tournaments such as the Johnny Walker classic still tend to avoid smaller resort towns because of their location away from sponsor bases, local tournaments remain committed to places such as Hua Hin and Pattaya.

The last TPC Singha Open was held on April 7 in Pattaya, drawing hordes of Thai professional golfers back to Thailand.

Van Amelsvoort says the numbers are small compared with tournaments that draw players from the Asian and British PGA, but "we do better than others", he adds. And in a land that has been known more for the sand on its beaches than for the sand in its sand traps, that may be more than anyone can ask.

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Apr 24, 2004

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