A Look at Thailand’s Golf Tourism

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Front Page - Writ­ten by: Mark Siegel

Thailand’s tourism cre­den­tials are im­pec­ca­ble. It has a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion for gor­geous beaches, a pre­dictable and con­sis­tent cli­mate, great cui­sine, in­ter­est­ing cul­ture, plus of course the warm, friendly and wel­com­ing peo­ple; it is, af­ter all, known as the Land of Smiles. Ad­di­tion­ally, it has modern in­fra­struc­ture, trans­port links and ameni­ties un­like some coun­tries in the re­gion, but just enough of a view of an­cient times to keep Thailand feel­ing gen­uine and ex­otic. Va­ca­tion op­tions range from back­pack­ing on a shoestring to five star lux­u­ries and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. This has re­sulted in tourism’s crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion to the Thai econ­omy, with over 29.88 mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2015 con­tribut­ing Baht 2.21 tril­lion. Tourism ac­counts for about 10 per­cent of Thailand’s GDP and is one of the few bright spots for an econ­omy that un­der­per­formed peers in South­east Asia. But what part does golf play in this piece? More than you may think.

While 2015 saw some 800,000 golf trav­el­ers visit Thailand, a mere 2.6% of the over­all vis­i­tors, the spend­ing of this tourism mar­ket seg­ment is over 3 times that of the gen­eral tourism. More­over, as the coun­tries re­sources are fi­nite and the growth in tourist ar­rivals can­not be sus­tained, the Tourism Author­ity of Thailand has re­cently stated that their fo­cus is no longer on num­ber of tourists, but qual­ity. Niche mar­kets, such as golf tourism, are now the key fo­cus ar­eas for the gov­ern­ment body.

THE SPECIFICS OF THAI GOLF

One of the key fac­tors that at­tract the large num­bers of vis­i­tors com­ing to play golf in Thailand is the vast choice of golf cour­ses lo­cated through­out the coun­try. From the beach re­sorts in the south, to the more moun­tain­ous sur­round­ings in the north, or the busier cities of Bangkok and Pat­taya, there are golf cour­ses suit­able for ev­ery­one. All are very ac­ces­si­ble, and trans­fers be­tween lo­ca­tions can eas­ily be done in a day, pro­vid­ing tourists with huge choice for plan­ning a golf hol­i­day. With modern fa­cil­i­ties, in­ter­na­tion­ally de­signed golf cour­ses, and an ex­cel­lent in­fra­struc­ture, the avail­abil­ity of golf has de­vel­oped sig­nif­i­cantly in Thailand. This has led by the In­ter­na­tional Golf Travel Agents As­so­ci­a­tion award­ing Thailand with the best golf des­ti­na­tion in Asia- Pa­cific 3 times ( Thailand in 2010, Pat­taya in 2012, and Hua Hin in 2015).

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, golf is a mid­dle class and mid­dle- aged pas­time re­quir­ing a fair amount of dis­posal in­come and time which nar­rows the golf tourism mar­ket op­por­tu­nity. In gen­eral there are some straight­for­ward trav­eler cat­e­gories to be tar­geted: groups of men look­ing to take their week­end pas­time to sun­nier or more ex­otic cli­mates; groups of women golfers look­ing to do the same; and fi­nally, the most civ­i­lized, a mixed gen­der group.

All of these re­quire sim­i­lar but sub­tly dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents in terms of lo­ca­tion, course or ac­com­mo­da­tion. When Asia ap­peared on the golf tourism scene the op­por­tu­nity was there to in­no­vate; how­ever, the ad­vice given, mostly by west­ern con­sul­tants, was to im­i­tate the West but a bit bet­ter, more ex­trav­a­gantly. Signs of this abound. You only have to take a look at Mis­sion Hills in China to see it is all about grandeur, fa­mous names and a her­itage from the last 20- 40 years. The fa­cil­i­ties are ex­trav­a­gant with a price tag to match.

Due to cul­tural dif­fer­ences, Asia also pro­vides some of those spe­cial de­tails that make a great deal of dif­fer­ence, such as a nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to make cus­tomers happy by pro­vid­ing su­perb ser­vice, par­tic­u­larly true of the Land of Smiles. One

of their se­cret weapons is the fe­male cad­die who can turn a bad day of golf into a bear­able, even pleas­ant one.

THE AP­PEAL OF THAI GOLF

Thailand has 5 prin­ci­pal golf tourism ar­eas, from north to south: Chi­ang Mai, Bangkok, Pat­taya, Hua Hin and Phuket. There are other small pock­ets con­tain­ing mul­ti­ple golf cour­ses such as Kan­chanaburi and Khao Yai, but these are off the beaten track and the afore­men­tioned have the best sup­port­ing in­fra­struc­ture with in­ter­na­tional stan­dard ho­tels and restau­rants and a lot more to of­fer. Coun­try- wide there are al­most 300 cour­ses with about 100 of those ‘ tourist- ready’ and on av­er­age one or two new cour­ses open ev­ery year. As most golf course projects are as­so­ci­ated with prop­erty de­vel­op­ment and re­quire a con­sid­er­able cap­i­tal out­lay, growth in sup­ply is sub­ject to eco­nomic con­di­tions and re­lies heav­ily on tourist ar­rivals.

De­scrib­ing a golf course as ‘ tourist- ready’ has broad con­no­ta­tions. What I tell peo­ple is that if you want to play good golf, stay home. If you want to en­joy the world’s best golf ex­pe­ri­ence then play golf in Thailand. This might at first seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but the real ap­peal for Thai golf tourism is not the golf, but ev­ery­thing sur­round­ing it. First is the course con­di­tion­ing. Thai golf cour­ses are of good in­ter­na­tional stan­dard due in part to the great amount of for­eign ex­per­tise in grass man­age­ment and the use of spe­cial­ist equip­ment. Thai su­per­in­ten­dents have learned fast and now rank among the most ca­pa­ble in their field. As a gen­eral rule, golf course qual­ity is bet­ter through­out and con­sid­ered a must to at­tract the green fees that in turn al­low fur­ther in­vest­ment.

Next is the staff. Due to low la­bor costs, Thai golf cour­ses can em­ploy 300- 400 staff to serve visit­ing golfers. With mar­shals to con­trol pace of play, plus cad­dies that are man­aged and have been prop­erly in­structed in the art of dis­tance mea­sure­ment and read­ing greens, a day at the golf course is like hav­ing your own per­sonal as­sis­tants to sup­port all of your needs.

In­fra­struc­ture and fa­cil­i­ties are com­pa­ra­ble with the world’s best, of­fer­ing a high stan­dard of food and bev­er­age pro­vi­sion that meets the needs of vis­i­tors from all around the world. Fi­nally, course de­sign is de­liv­er­ing more va­ri­ety and dif­fer­ent golf ex­pe­ri­ences such that Thailand can com­pete with any high class des­ti­na­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, pro­vid­ing a range of qual­ity golf cour­ses at all price points is es­sen­tial to ap­peal to a po­ten­tial mar­ket of 44 mil- lion golfers in North Amer­ica and Europe alone. At the mo­ment 75% of Thailand’s golf­ing vis­i­tors come from Korea (# 1) and Ja­pan (# 2) plus other as­sorted Asian coun­tries. Does Thailand golf have a low in­ter­na­tional pro­file, or isn’t the prod­uct good enough? Is that chang­ing? Let’s look at the his­tory of golf in Thailand and what can be ex­pected in the fu­ture.

THE HIS­TORY OF GOLF IN THAILAND

Al­though per­ceived by many tourists as a very new golf­ing des­ti­na­tion, his­tory shows that golf was ac­tu­ally played here as early as 1906 at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club course. More de­tailed records show that His Majesty King Va­ji­ravudh ex­pressed an in­ter­est in golf, and in 1923 granted per­mis­sion for the con­struc­tion of the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course in the Hua Hin dis­trict. This in­for­ma­tion con­firms the ex­is­tence of golf in Thailand 100 years ago; how­ever, ac­tive in­ter­est and par­tic­i­pa­tion were not fully taken up un­til 28 June, 1924, when the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course opened. Up­graded in the 1980s, this course con­tin­ues to be one of the most pop­u­lar in the Hua Hin area with both lo­cals and visit­ing tourists.

How­ever, it was many years be­fore the coun­try got the at­ten­tion of the Asian pro­fes­sional cir­cuit, and the Thailand Golf As­so­ci­a­tion made its of­fi­cially de­but in 1964, host­ing the Thailand Open. Since then, the Thailand Open has be­come a reg­u­lar fix­ture on the Asian Tour with awards and per­for­mances be­ing grad­u­ally en­hanced to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. More re­cently, Thailand has hosted world class golf tour­na­ments at­tract­ing such play­ers as Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and Colin Mont­gomerie to name but a few. Cour­ses as Blue Canyon in Phuket, Thai Coun­try Club in Bangkok, and Black Moun­tain in Hua Hin have hosted men’s PGA events.

Thai male pro­fes­sion­als such as Tongchai Jaidee and Kradech Aphibarn­rat are fea­tur­ing promi­nently in in­ter­na­tional rank­ing tables and it hasn’t just been the men. Thailand has played host to the U. S. LPGA for the past 8 years with an an­nual event held at Pat­taya’s Siam County Club Old Course each March. This past month Ariya Ju­tanu­garn, one of two

sis­ters play­ing on the LPGA Tour spec­tac­u­larly won 3 tour­na­ments in a row, a record for a rookie on the Tour. There are more tour­na­ments here at­tract­ing tele­vi­sion cov­er­age which is sure to gen­er­ate more in­ter­est in Thailand as a golf des­ti­na­tion among the world’s golfers. Whereas it was once an in­dus­try that was very much leisure fo­cused and not tak­ing it­self too se­ri­ously, Thailand golf now has as­pi­ra­tions on the global stage.

THE FU­TURE OF GOLF IN THAILAND

What about the fu­ture? Is there room for com­pla­cency in Thailand golf tourism? The an­swer is no. Cer­tainly there is sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity from places like China, Europe and the un­tapped Amer­i­can mar­ket, all of which ex­pects the best of all things and have very high golf stan­dards.

Thailand must also be wary of its “neigh­bor” Viet­nam which is blos­som­ing as a golf des­ti­na­tion. Places like Danang of­fer a fab­u­lous coastal lo­ca­tion with top in­ter­na­tional ho­tels and four of the best cour­ses in the Asia re­gion de­signed by the likes of Nick Faldo, Greg Nor­man, Colin Mont­gomerie and Luke Don­ald. Run by West­ern ex­perts along­side pres­ti­gious sports man­age­ment cor­po­ra­tions such as IMG, this is a recipe for suc­cess par­tic­u­larly as places such as Danang of­fer pack­ages at prices that com­pare fa­vor­ably with Hua Hin, one of Thailand’s most pop­u­lar golf des­ti­na­tions. With 30 more cour­ses in the pipe­line, all top qual­ity, Viet­nam is aim­ing high and has am­bi­tion to lay claim to the Asian golf va­ca­tion crown.

The good news is that golf tour oper­a­tors are pre­pared to ex­plore dif­fer­ent ways of do­ing things and signs of golf tourism in­no­va­tion are man­i­fest in Thailand. A case in point is the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween our Thai golf tour com­pany Gol­fasian and Aus­tralia’s Go Golf­ing. Our two com­pa­nies now of­fer full- blown am­a­teur tour­na­ment golf man­aged along pro­fes­sional lines, part­ner­ing with five star ho­tels and the top cour­ses to of­fer a unique ex­pe­ri­ence at great prices. The Cen­tara World Masters event’s suc­cess has not been lost upon the es­tab­lish­ment. Six hun­dred vis­i­tors from 26 coun­tries to a town like Hua Hin for a week in low sea­son in­ject Baht 60 mil­lion into the lo­cal econ­omy. This is a win for all facets of Hua Hin’s of­fer; golf cour­ses, ho­tels, restau­rants and en­ter­tain­ment venues. The event, spon­sored by lo­cal en­ti­ties such as Cen­tara Ho­tels & Re­sorts and the Tourism Author­ity of Thailand has even at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the Hua Hin Mayor who is now a firm sup­porter of the con­cept. It is this type of co- op­er­a­tion that could keep Thailand at the top.

Mark Siegel is Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Gol­fasian. He can be con­tacted at mark@ gol­fasian. com.

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