Already established as a popular tourist destination, Thailand is also quickly becoming synonymous with golf.
Though the country is known for its culture, hospitality and resorts, the golfing scene is a hidden gem for the average traveller.
Thailand is attempting to change that by bringing the sport near the top of the list for reasons to visit by showcasing its ever-expanding portfolio of golf courses.
The appeal of golfing in Thailand isn’t complicated or hard to see. With both its quantity and quality of courses, the weather conditions, the caddies, accommodations and most importantly, value for money, the country isn’t lacking benefits to attract players. It has simply lacked enough exposure.
That, however, is not a problem the country’s tourism has in general, as evidenced by Thailand totalling 12.4 million visitors bet-ween January and May earlier this year.
That figure is a 25 per cent increase over the same period in 2004, while the 592.9 million baht (Dh61m) in tourism income is also up by 25.13 per cent.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is projecting 28.8 million international visitors for the entire year of 2015, generating around 1.4 trillion baht (Dh14bn) in overall tourism revenue.
It’s impossible to quantify how much of the increase in tourism is due to golf, but approximately 460,000 visitors went to Thailand in 2013 specifically to play golf or “as part of a wider package of leisure activities” which brought in an estimated 4.4 million baht in revenue, according to TAT.
Golf may never be the main draw for visiting Thailand for the first time, but the country is essentially hoping the sport gets people to stay and come back for more.
When it comes to golf courses, Thailand boasts more than 250 spread across the landscape. Whether you’re staying in the nat-ion’s capital of Bangkok, a nightlife city environment in Pattaya, the countryside of Chiang Mai or the seaside town of Hua Hin, there are a number of courses to play on.
Pattaya and Hua Hin received Golf Destination of the Year for Asia and Australia awards by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
Bangkok’s Amata Spring Country Club, meanwhile, hosts the Thailand Golf Championship, which has turned into the Asian Tour’s flagship tournament and attracts stars like Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel – winners of the past three editions.
Each golfing city or town in Thailand is accompanied with luxury hotels and resorts, from the upscale Lebua in Bangkok to the serene Sheraton on the shore in Hua Hin, so comfort is never compromised.
Many of the courses themselves are designed by household names like Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, among others. The variety of environments means golfers can take on fresh challenges from course to course, but Thailand’s weather is what ultimately enables the preservation of the greens year-round.
“Countries in Europe and America, they cannot keep the same maintenance all year because they have winter,” said Mike Mesommonta, chairman of the Thailand golf association eastern section.
“In the past 25 years I’ve lived in Pattaya, there’s been no snow so the maintenance of our greens and fairway has been steadily looked after. Like a private club in America, you enjoy playing here because there’s good maintenance all year round, but it’s open to the public.”
Thailand’s weather doesn’t make for perfect conditions throughout the year because while there isn’t really a winter, the summer brings its own extremes – humidity, heat and rain.
To compensate for the off-season, courses have significantly cut their green fees in an attempt to lure players. The discount on the already-affordable prices is particularly advantageous considering Thailand doesn’t suffer from the same type of heat that plagues a golfing destination like the UAE, for example.
“For Chiang Mai, we have strictly seasonal golf,” said Thaweewat Thaweephon, chairman of Thailand’s northern golf resort association.
“In the winter season, starting from November to March, that’s our high season. From then to October, that’s our low season because of the hot weather and rain.
We try to lower the price, but we cannot support the golf course because our costs are very high. We try to keep the maintenance to our standards. That’s why we have to play a game with the price in the low season.
“For example, the cost in the high season is 6,000 baht (Dh617) per person. In the low season, the average is probably around 2,500 baht (Dh257) for each golfer.”
Mesommonta added: “You would pay double if you played in Japan or Korea and you would pay three times as much if you go to the United States or Europe to play in the same conditions.”
Apart from the low price, golfers can enjoy exceptional service, including the unique experience of playing alongside female caddies.
As well as raking bunkers, marking balls and keeping score, the caddies bring a warm friendliness and hospitality that enhances any round.
They aren’t without extensive knowledge either, possessing a strong feel for the course’s lines and length. Unlike in the western part of the world or Europe, Thailand’s caddie fees are for the extremely low cost of typically 300 baht (Dh31).
“Our caddies, especially in Pattaya, they speak English, as well as Japanese, Korean and of course Thai. The communication, the advice, the layout and the line, they can tell you quite easily,” Mesommonta said.
The advantages of golfing in Thailand are apparent, but raising awareness to reach the maximum number of people is necessary, which is why the country held its inaugural Thailand Golf Travel Mart (TGTM) from August 4-6, organised by TAT.
The purpose of the event was to promote the sport’s potential in the nation by bringing together golf-holiday buyers and sellers. In total, TAT invited 153 buyers from 27 overseas offices to meet with 95 sellers to familiarise themselves with Thailand’s hotels, spa operators and golf-related businesses.
One of those buyers was Justin Jacob, managing director of Connect World Golf, a division of Connect World Tour, a destination management company in Dubai.
Jacob had travelled to Thailand previously, but his visit for the TGTM was his first chance to play golf on a trip.
One of his favourite moments during his stay was dropping in at Thaniya Plaza in Bangkok and walking through the four-level shopping centre solely dedicated to the selling of golf equipment, merchandise and products.
Jacob’s trip further exposed him to the potential of golf in Thailand and he believes there’s a growing market of visitors from the UAE.
“We are looking to Thailand as a place we can really promote as a golf destination, apart from the regular tours we are doing,” Jacob said. “Thailand is really known as a tourist destination, but Thailand is now putting energy towards promoting themselves as a golf destination.”
While golf continues to grow in Thailand, the sport is by no means under development. Golf is well established and it’s only a matter of time before the country’s reputation catches up with reality.
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