Golf has been described as an aspirational sport, a corporate sport, and a sport for the middle class. No surprise then that it is being positioned as a cornerstone of the UAE’s sports tourism strategy.
According to a survey by the US National Golf Foundation, a typical golfer earns on average $95,000, and 79% of golfers have a net worth over $100,000.
Seemingly, golf and the Emirates are a match made in business heaven: eight months of predictable and consistent golf-friendly weather, acres of prime waterside real estate, and an economy that’s rapidly recovering from one of the worst recessions in recent memory.
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Despite this, it has been “a very tough few years for the golf industry”, says Andrea Sartori, partner of the sports advisory council at KPMG. Development of new courses, supply and demand for operational services, and participation rates all waned between 2008 and 2012, according to Sartori.
Corporate memberships also took a big hit as companies started to cut costs and make some savings,” he says.
However, the situation has rapidly improved in the past 24 months, not just in the UAE, but globally. “This is linked to economic growth,” says Sartori, adding that around 400 new golf courses have opened during this period or are under development.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s existing stable of tour quality courses have seen a steep increase in demand in 2014, with 32,000 rounds of golf played in the first quarter alone.
According to data from the Professional Sports Group, based in London, more than 43,000 rounds of golf have been played in Abu Dhabi to date in 2014, with almost a quarter of those involving overseas visitors.
Data shows golf participation in Abu Dhabi has grown exponentially year-on-year since 2011, when the capital’s three premium courses – Saadiyat Island, Yas Links, and the Abu Dhabi Golf Club – registered 104,814 rounds of golf combined. In 2012, the number reached 122,994, and climbed to 141,591 in 2013.
Industry sources attribute this to greater focus on packaged deals by its external tour operators. A central reservation system, which allows prospective holiday golfers to book tee times on UAE golf courses, along with flights through its national carriers, Emirates and Etihad, and high-end accommodation all inclusive, has made playing golf in the UAE simpler than ever.
The UAE is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for Asian golf tourists. Abu Dhabi’s top tour operator in the region predicts a 20 percent rise in golf bookings from Asia in 2014. One of the main reasons for this is the country’s growing profile as a high-end tourist destination in the region.
“The reason high-end, premium golfing facilities are popular is because they fit the profile of tourists visiting the country,” Sartori says. “You get a lot of business tourists, conference tourists, and golf tourists. So the UAE’s target market is a very affluent one.”
A recent KPMG survey discovered the key factors golf tourists look for when booking a golfing holiday are quality of the courses, accessibility, and the quality of accommodation. The UAE hosts more televised events per year than England, across two championship courses; Emirates Golf Club, in Dubai, and the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the capital. The country has also cemented itself as a global aviation hub, with Emirates flying to more than 130 destinations worldwide. In terms of accommodation, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are home to some of the most luxurious hotels in the world.
Another key factor cited in the KPMG report is climate, another factor weighing heavily in favour of the UAE, according to Sartori. “If you look at the European winter, golf is almost unplayable from November up until May.”
Fortunately, the least important factor when considering a golfing holiday is golf tradition. Possibly the only category where the UAE couldn’t compete with Europe and America. Simon Cory-Wright, director for the Middle East at TSE Consultancy, claims that the UAE is aware of the lack of native roots in the sports it’s promoting. However, this is all part of an overriding agenda for social change.
“There’s a genuine desire from the top levels of government to integrate sport into the culture and educate the local populace about sport in a broad sense,” he says.
There are signs of increasing local interest. According to data from the Tourism and Culture Authority of Abu Dhabi, Emiratis accounted for 24 percent of spectators at this year’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, up from 13 percent last year.
While affordability could prove a barrier to greater participation, Sartori says the cost of a round of golf reflects the quality of the facilities available. “The facilities here are outstanding,” he says. “So the price of a round reflects that.” Sartori does concede, however, that prices are “significantly higher” than rival markets “such as Portugal or Spain”.
Despite this, he advises against establishing mid-range courses in the Emirates. “It might attract more tourists, but it’s not a good move for the UAE,” he says. “Let other markets tap into the mid-scale and low-budget market.”
Dubai’s top courses are certainly getting their fair share of the $70 billion-a-year industry. Joining the Emirates Golf Club will set you back AED20,000 ($6,000). The annual fee is another AED33,000.
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