A Look at Thailand’s Golf Tourism
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.