Thailand, the fairway to
heaven By Sara Schonhardt
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".
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
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".
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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
The last TPC Singha Open was held
on April 7 in Pattaya, drawing hordes of Thai
professional golfers back to Thailand.
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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