Golf tourism, once concentrated exclusively in Europe, North America and the Caribbean, is continuing its rise around the globe, evolving into a billion dollar industry, with golfers always looking for a new, exotic course to play.

In the GCC region, where the first grass golf course opened in Dubai in 1988, the number of new courses has grown rapidly in the last two decades. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are now established golfing destinations, with some of the best golf courses in the world, but Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar are also determined to take their share of the lucrative business and are planning or building their own new courses. Golf tourism may be a niche kind of travel, but golfers are spending more than ordinary tourists thanks to the nature of accommodation (usually resorts), and destinations where golf courses are located.

State-of-the-art golf facilities in the GCC region, especially in the UAE, are a proven tourist magnet. According to last year’s report, ‘Economic Impact of Sport in Dubai,’ by Deloitte, a staggering USD 131 million per annum is generated just by golf. The study revealed the total gross expenditure on golf in the emirate is USD 270 million, a quarter of total sports expenditure, while the estimated economic impact of golf tourism in Dubai is USD 38 million.

Golf’s contribution to the wider sporting sector is on the up across a number of key indicators, as it contributes 30 percent to sport’s total economic impact of USD 421 million, states the report, adding Dubai’s core golf industry employs around 1,800 people in many different services and organizations. When it comes to individual spending, international golf visitors each spend an average of five nights in Dubai and typically spend around USD 190 per day for accommodation, with additional spend of around USD 220 per day.

The case of UAE, where around 60,000 golfers came to play in 2015 (60 percent of them went to Dubai’s 11 golf courses), shows how investing in golf and the industries related to the sport can be well worth it. In Doha, where currently there’s only one grass golf course – The Doha Golf Club near Qatar University, where the prestigious Qatar Masters is held annually since 1998 – another brand new grass course will soon attract local and international golf fans.

The Qatar International Golf Club (QIGC), located within Education City, will comprise an 18-hole championship golf course, 6-hole championship course, 90-hole par-3 course, high-tech driving range and practice facilities as well as a centre of excellence and a public park featuring a host of indoor and outdoor activities. Designed in keeping with local culture and traditions, QIGC will feature female-centric practice facilities. The project will also boast a luxury clubhouse with 5-star hotel rooms, a spa and various dining and banqueting facilities. When completed, QIGC will become one of the most sustainable golf courses in the world by following the guidelines and criteria set by the Golf Environment Organization (GEO).

Becoming a golf nation

Mohammed Al Naimi
Mohammed Al Naimi, deputy general manager of QIGC

For Mohammed Al Naimi, deputy general manager of QIGC, investing in a new golf course and in the sport itself, is a logical move. “Qatar has long been considered a successful host for major international sports events. Globally, Qatar has stood out and been recognized as a sport loving nation with many sports and especially with Olympic sports enjoying world-class facilities that go beyond hosting events to offer the local community an environment to learn and play at the highest level. Yet when it comes to golf, the nation has been relatively reserved in growing to its full potential, despite the demand from the country’s expatriate population. For golf to grow in a relatively new market like Qatar, an investment is needed with a new facility that can help bring the game into the local community, for Qatar to truly become a golf nation. This is the vision of our starting point and the rationale behind why the course sits amongst the learning environment of Doha’s internationally recognized university and science community in Education City.

“As a facility it will be totally unique not only to the region, but the world, as a single destination which is entirely dedicated to growing the game. Historically, Qatar has a great track record in showing when the opportunity to try new sports is invested in, great growth ensues. This is clearly apparent when you see the interest and growth in the fields of handball, swimming and athletics. All have become much loved within Qatar’s community simply by creating the opportunity to play and more importantly supporting the infrastructure to create awareness and participation levels. Each of these sports will feature Qataris in the Olympics this summer in Brazil and that comes from investing, planning and taking sport into the community.

“I expect the same for golf, especially as we are introducing the game to a relatively new audience here in Qatar. When you consider how golf is currently growing in emerging markets globally, you can see the potential for the game when the right opportunities are created. It’s a wonderful game that can be played from ages eight to 80, or even younger or older. Men and women, girls and boys, all are able to play and enjoy together regardless of their skill level or standard of play. It’s definitely an exciting time for golf in Qatar and we look forward to playing our part in growing the game in the country,” Al Naimi tells BQ.

qatar golf

To be export ready in golf

But how financially sustainable are golf courses in a country like Qatar, where golf is a relatively new sport and what kind of golfer will come to Doha to play? Guillaume Post, marketing and communications manager at IAGTO, the global trade organization of the golf tourism industry, believes that with relatively high green fees in the GCC region due to high irrigation and maintenance costs, golf in the GCC appeals more to avid golfers than to the occasional, higher handicap, golfer.

“Avid golfers in particularly like to play a different course each day for the duration of their visit, and therefore ‘destinations’ with only one or two courses are at a significant disadvantage to destinations with three, four or five ‘export ready’ courses within a 45 minute drive of their chosen accommodation. Previous IAGTO surveys have demonstrated that a destinations like Qatar with only one export ready golf course (export ready being a term defined by IAGTO as being a golf course that is open and accessible to visitors and of a quality that makes it attractive for the majority of potential visitors to play) can attract only 15 percent of the golf visitors that would theoretically be interested in visiting the destination for the primary purpose of playing golf.”

This figure rises to 25 percent when there are two courses in play and jumps significantly to 75 percent when there are three export ready golf courses within a 45 minute drive of the most common accommodation hubs and when five courses are in play then all potential customers are satisfied. “Therefore a destination like Qatar needs to think of the wider picture and in the meantime needs to focus on how to attract the maximum number of a reduced market sector due to the absence of a viable golf course cluster. The Doha Golf Club is a fantastic facility, attractive to all golf visitors, so as was raised by IAGTO over a decade ago after a site inspection in Qatar, the big question is when the dynamics of the destination will change from the perspective of the potential golf visitor,” Post points out.

Annual growth above 8 percent globally

When talking about the sustainability of golf courses in the region and in Qatar, the deputy general manager of QIGC remains optimistic, emphasizing innovation and education as the key drivers for golf as a sport and a golf tourism industry. “Golf courses around the world, not just in the GCC region, are placing more importance on the need to be sustainable. At the Qatar International Golf Club sustainability is central in all the decisions we make and the strategies we implement. We therefore consider sustainability from an economic, social and environmental point of view.” At the environmental level, the course needs to enhance and protect the local environment in which it exists. To achieve this, especially in climatic conditions like Qatar and the wider region, innovation is required with the use of new technology and research.

“We’re working to essentially develop new techniques in design to set new standards in environmental sustainability whether it’s through enhancing nature, the turf we use, incorporating recycled materials, using local plants, minimizing water and energy consumption,” says Al Naimi, and adds this is vital in order to build a lasting legacy. “We need to know the course we are building today will exist long into the future and offer world-class golfing opportunity as well as a return on investment. So we’re hoping the facility can act as a blueprint for others to follow. For QIGC to have a sustainable future it also needs to create golfers. There is an existing demand from a mainly expatriate market to play and use the facilities, but QIGC has also been active in encouraging Qataris to become involved with the golf and leisure management industry.

“That aspect of social sustainability within the local community is also an important consideration. Trying to set new global standards in sustainability for the benefit of Qatar firstly and golf worldwide is an exciting but significant challenge, especially at an environmental level. In response to that challenge QIGC has been working with guidance from the GEO, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to providing a credible system of sustainability standards for the golf industry. It’s important to realise that the construction process at QIGC is the first of its kind globally. This is truly a world first. So careful planning and research has been needed and will continue in the future. Beyond building a world-class golfing destination, QIGC will be one of the most technologically advanced, innovative and sustainable golf facilities in the world,” explains Al Naimi.

Post says that at a global level, tourism has been growing at a healthy rate for the past few years, and the golf tourism industry has either matched or exceeded this growth rate since 2012. “The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) states that tourist arrivals grew by 4.4 percent in 2015. IAGTO’s golf tourism suppliers reported growth in 2015 of 4.5 percent, while our outbound golf tour operators who control 87 percent of the packaged international golf vacation market, saw sales increase by 9.3 percent –  the fourth year in a row that annual growth was above 8 percent. There is some variation in these numbers between Europe, North America and Asia, but all are highly positive.

“Moreover, forward bookings are also high for 2016 taken on 1 January this year, which is the best indicator of future performance. So golf visitor arrival performance of individual destinations and courses within the GCC should therefore be judged against these global trends. The ability to grow can be hampered by insufficient product capacity at the times of year when international golf visitors wish to visit and play the GCC golf destinations. Therefore this must be the first consideration,” says Post.

first green at qigc

A place where everyone can be a golfer

“QIGC can be the catalyst upon which golf tourism can flourish in Qatar. The project proudly embodies the Qatar 2030 vision for human, social, environmental and economic development by providing a framework to grow the game of golf in Qatar,” says Al Naimi, adding the demand for additional golf facilities in Doha is increasing and a further rise is expected due to being featured in the Olympics in Brazil 2016. “We believe the destination will make a valuable economic contribution to Qatar’s leisure and hospitality industry.  It will be a major draw for residents as well as inbound golf travel, and will offer an exciting addition to Qatar’s blossoming tourist attractions.”

Al Naimi goes on to say the facility will grow the game amongst the local community outwards and bring more into the game across the Arab world, which can only boost tourism opportunities within Qatar. According to him, with careful planning, Qatar can be turned into a golfing nation. “This is exactly the challenge and opportunity of what we’re trying to achieve at the QIGC. To grow the game amongst Qataris and encourage more players into the game has always been the main goal. Our vision is simple ‘to create a place where everyone can be a ‘golfer’. We believe that can be achieved by offering new formats of the game which are fun and exciting regardless of ability.

“We started with a blank piece of paper and worked on creating a new journey for golfers that can take everyone on a pathway from absolute beginners through to professionals. It really is a first anywhere in the world to do this and bring a complete journey together and connect all steps with a purpose built facility that guides players and offers as much enjoyment as possible at each step. With the objective of turning Qatar into a golfing nation we’ve carefully studied the game, listened to the experts in the industry and developed relationships with like-minded partners to ensure this facility responds to the challenges golf faces and grasps the opportunities that exist now and in the future.

“As golf returns to the Olympics in 2016, the interest in Qatar and other emerging markets is growing and the game has so much to look forward to with this project. It really will be a game changer,” Al Naimi concludes.

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