x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

On course to mine gold on greens

Abu Dhabi is sharpening its focus on golf courses as a means of bringing larger numbers of higher spending visitors to the emirate and keeping them here longer. By the end of this year, three golf courses will be part of the emirate's mix of attractions.

Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is the latest addition to Abu Dhabi's stable of world class courses that together are attracting a higher spending breed of tourist.
Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is the latest addition to Abu Dhabi's stable of world class courses that together are attracting a higher spending breed of tourist.

Drive 10 minutes from the Corniche, over the Khalifa Bridge, and you reach the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. You are greeted by an army of helpers who take your clubs and lead you into the clubhouse.

A locker is waiting for you, with your name on it. Then you are invited to the practice area, where a pyramid of new balls is waiting. Music plays from speakers among the palm trees, while attractive waitresses dressed as old-fashioned golfers in plus fours wait on your every move. The course is long and undulating, with a number of holes along the shoreline. As the wind blows and the waves crash on the beach, you could be on the west coast of Scotland on an uncommonly balmy day, or somewhere in California.

This is just one of the new courses aimed at luring visitors to Abu Dhabi, or at least encouraging conference guests to stay a few more days in the city. It is part of a spread of new attractions, including the Yas Marina Circuit, the Ferrari World theme park, international cricket, the Capitala World Tennis Tournament and the Yas Links Golf Course. "Sport, in particular golf, forms the cornerstone of our strategy," says Ahmed Hussein, the chief operating officer of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) and the deputy director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

"Abu Dhabi has set out a clear road map to establish itself as a business, leisure and cultural destination with the view of attracting 2.3 million hotel guests by 2012," he says. Last year, Abu Dhabi hosted 1.5 million hotel guests. Analysts say that golf is in line with Abu Dhabi's plans to lure the well-heeled traveller, as opposed to the mass-market tourist. "Golf has a strong track record worldwide of helping to position destinations to the more discerning and high spending tourism markets," says Mark Sandilands, the senior manager at KPMG Golf Advisory Practice. Golf tourists spend on average 30 to 50 per cent more per person per day in a destination than the average leisure tourist, says the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO).

"Furthermore, golfers tend to stay longer and return to their preferred golf destination, either for more golf, or for business, or family vacations. The new golf development will definitely encourage more tourism to Abu Dhabi." The golf economy in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is worth ?53 billion (Dh265.5bn), supporting nearly 500,000 jobs and paying nearly ?10bn in wages, KPMG says. "The business of golf has witnessed unprecedented growth in the UAE, and Dubai has been at the forefront of such development," Mr Sandilands says.

Although there are well established courses in Dubai such as the Emirates Golf Club and the Els Club, some golf projects have been delayed or scrapped. The property transactions that would have allowed some projects to go forward could not be completed because of the financial crisis. Work on Tiger Woods Dubai, the master plan for which shows palaces, mansions and a boutique hotel, has been slow, while the fate of the US$1.8bn (Dh6.61bn) Dubai Golf City, also part of the vast Dubailand development, is uncertain.

Abu Dhabi has only recently started to focus on its golf development plans. The TDIC already has the Abu Dhabi Golf Club and a Robert Trent Jones course also planned for Saadiyat Island. Aldar is developing the Yas Links, with its clubhouse due to open at the end of March. The Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, designed by Gary Player, the South African golfer and golf course architect, was launched last month with a charity tournament featuring Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. The course will open to the public next month, and is part of Abu Dhabi's multibillion-dirham flagship Sadiyaat Island development. The island will eventually house other attractions such as the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, but the golf course is its first operating element.

"We had to start with something," says Alan Gordon, the marketing and public relations director at the TDIC. Work has already started on some of the nine luxury resorts that will line the beach, the first of which will open next year. These include St Regis, Park Hyatt and Shangri-La hotels. The architect Frank Gehry, who is already designing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, has also been commissioned to design the clubhouse. Mr Gehry's and Mr Player's fees - and the overall cost of the golf development - have not been disclosed. Despite a number of cost and water saving measures that have been put in place, just maintaining the course will cost about $2m a year.

"In the big scheme of things, we think it's worth it," says DJ Flanders, the general manager of the Saadiyat club. "When you take into consideration that this is going to be the backdrop of however many villas and however many hotel guests, I would venture to say that it's money well spent." The returns are potentially high, but to maximise its potential as a golf tourism destination, Abu Dhabi would probably need more courses, analysts say.

"Isolated golf courses can attract some golf tourism business, but they are at a disadvantage to clusters of golf courses," says Carlton Carugati, the general manager of IAGTO. "With just one course, a region can only attract 15 per cent of all golfers who might otherwise be interested in visiting that location. With two courses, a region can attract 25 per cent of all golfers, whilst with three courses, this figure jumps to 75 per cent. With five accessible golf courses of suitable standards, all golfers interested in visiting a particular destination will find that the golf product matches their requirements."

This year, Abu Dhabi is expected to have three championship courses, with the Yas Links course due to launch officially in October. Whereas the Saadiyat club is more of a resort golf course, the Links club is more focused on a membership model. Analysts say that the membership model is often more profitable, although the resort-style course could demand higher rates per round. "Yas Links will be a semi-private golf course offering a membership base of 400," says Chris White, the general manager of the course. "We want to ensure our members and their guests' needs are taken care of and will operate a calendar of events that fulfils that objective.

"We will also be open for non-member play based on tee time supply, so guests, tourists etc will be able to access the course, but outside of members' times." He said that both business models that could work. "However, operating costs of golf clubs in this region are high, and as an operator you need to provide a balance of catering to all markets that contribute to a club's total revenue." He has no doubt that Abu Dhabi can become a world-class golfing destination.

"Abu Dhabi is about to become another fine golfing destination providing three very different golf courses. Yas Links is very conscious that we need to meet the needs of the UAE local market but also contribute to the big picture of encouraging overseas visitors to this unique island of leisure, and Abu Dhabi." @Email:rbundhun@thenational.ae