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Times 4 Oct 07
Golf could be the next big thing for tourism
By Leonard Lim
AFTER going all out to woo the meetings and conventions segment as well as weekend visitors, chasing the golf tourism dollar could be the next money-spinner for Singapore.
The Republic has the potential to be a top golfing holiday destination, and this is a market waiting to be tapped, say tourism and golf industry insiders.
'I'm a golfer myself and I say why not, it's possible to market ourselves that way,' said Mr Robert Khoo, chief executive of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas).
'Thailand and Australia, for instance, are doing very well in this. It would be a good way to expand our inbound traffic.'
In July, the Urban Redevelopment Authority permitted golf clubs to build hotels on their premises, with Singapore seeing ever-increasing tourism arrivals.
Jurong Country Club (JCC) and Laguna National Golf and Country Club have received approval. Their targeted opening date? 2010.
But, apart from helping alleviate the Republic's growing hotel room crunch, the clubs' hotels could also host well-heeled visitors keen to try out the award-winning courses.
Sentosa Golf Club's Serapong, for instance, was voted one of Asia's top five championship courses by Asian Golf Monthly last year.
Laguna's Masters and Classic courses have also been ranked among the best in the world by Golf Digest International.
And the value of golf tourism is undeniable, noted the July issue of Asian Golf Monthly.
According to figures released by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), about 350,000 visitors played golf in Thailand and contributed almost 6.2 billion baht (S$268 million) to the economy in 2002.
The draw: the country has more than six world-class golfing venues in cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hua Hin, and even Kanchanaburi and Pattaya. These include Bangkok's Thai Country Club and Alpine Golf and Sports Club, Phuket's famed Blue Canyon Country Club, the Laem Chabang International Country Club and Pattaya's St Andrews 2000 Golf Club.
This year, Thailand, voted Asia's Best Golfing Destination in the Asian Golf Monthly Awards for seven years in succession, is hoping to welcome over a million golfers, generating an estimated 18.45 billion baht in revenue.
Mr Chew Tiong Heng, the Singapore Tourism Board's director for international marketing, said the STB already promotes golf as one of many leisure and sports activities here, but there is potential for further development.
'We have been looking at golf as a potential draw for visitors and considering if we can develop golf-themed visitor packages, similar to how we currently offer packages based on themes such as food, shopping and the arts,' he said.
'Should the hotels in clubs come about, golf-related promotions and packages will become even more compelling products that we can consider.'
Mr Ram Samtani, general manager of Ramesh Travel Services, said it was an ideal time to ride on developments like next February's inaugural HSBC women's Champion of Champions tournament at Laguna and other top competitions Singapore is hosting.
Indeed, the Republic is becoming one of the top venues in the region for prestigious golf tournaments.
In 2005 and 2006, the likes of Annika Sorenstam and Paula Creamer were here for the Lexus Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event pitting 12 Asian stars against 12 international ones.
Meanwhile, the latest edition of the US$4 million (S$5.93 million) Barclays Singapore Open next month will feature four of the world's top 10 players: No. 2 Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els (5th), defending champion Adam Scott (6th) and K. J. Choi (9th).
However, Mr Samtani cautioned: 'We shouldn't market Singapore as a golfing destination alone. It's not an economical affair that way.'
'If we bundle it with the attractions of Singapore's vibrant shopping scene and nightlife, for instance, it'll definitely work.'
Regionally, Singapore is believed to be the only country offering golf under the stars - a novelty golfers say could be a draw for tourists.
Also, said JCC general manager Peter Goh, ' certain clubs do have spare capacity, especially during off-peak periods like weekday mornings, which tourists can make use of',
But Mr Mervin Nambiar, 59, a sales director based in Hong Kong who travels extensively in the region for business and golf, thinks price could be Singapore's downfall.
'It's so much cheaper in Johor, for instance. For less than RM100 (S$43.50), you can play a round and get a good buffet meal after that,' he said.
A round of golf at local courses costs between $100 and $150.
Mr Nicklaus D'Cruz, chief executive officer of the Organisation of Asian Amateur Golfers, begs to differ.
He says cheaper courses like those on Bintan have mainly been set up for Singaporeans who want a cheap round of golf, adding: 'I wouldn't even consider them competition.'
He cited top courses like Spyglass Hill in the United States. It commands fees of around US$400 a round, but is still a top golfing destination.
Mr Nambiar and others acknowledge that Singapore's safety, accessibility to the city centre and comprehensive facilities are plus points.
One barrier, however, is that most courses are still almost exclusively for members' use, unlike most in Thailand or Malaysia, which are open to the public.
Only a few, like Sentosa and Marina Bay, cater to walk-in golfers.
'If courses are more accepting of tourists and open themselves to public use, then there won't be a problem,' said Hong Kong-based James Stewart, who has travelled extensively in the region as a player on the Asian Tour.
'Golfers would like to mix it up if they come, and not play on the same course every day. 'Take Sentosa. It's well set up and welcomes overseas visitors. If other courses can follow their lead, that'd be great.'
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