Complex Made Simple

UAE looks to boost its golf tourism industry

Although world-class golf courses and sunny weather are in abundance in the UAE, golf tourists represent a surprisingly small portion of visitors to the country. However, as hotels face increasing competition for guests in the wake of the economic downturn, golf tourism is seen as a promising sector that offers great opportunities for the UAE's hotel industry.

The UAE has greatly expanded its golf offerings in recent years and now boasts more than a dozen top-quality courses, including the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which plays host to this month’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

However, despite the enormous investment that the UAE has made to establish itself as a golf destination, its golf tourism sector has gained little traction. In fact, the percentage of overseas rounds as a total of all golf rounds played in the country has actually decreased over the past five years, according to Mark Chapleski, area managing director and vice-president of Troon Golf Middle East, which operates four clubs in the UAE.

The decline can be partly attributed to the fact that the number of rounds played by local residents has risen dramatically, he points out. The downturn also was a key factor weighing heavily on the UAE’s golf tourism sector, as tourist arrivals from the main feeder countries in Europe fell sharply.

Nevertheless, only about 10% of all golf rounds in the UAE each year are played by overseas tourists, whereas in similar destinations the figure is usually about 30%, Chapleski noted.

Huge growth market

The potential revenue that the UAE stands to gain by boosting golf tourism is substantial. Golf represents the largest sports-related travel market in the world, with its valued estimated to be worth about $20bn per year.

Golf tourists also tend to spend about 20%-30% more than other tourists while on vacation, according to Andrea Sartori, head of KPMG’s Golf Advisory Practice in the EMA region.

‘Compared to other types of tourists, golf tourists spend significantly more, purchasing numerous and varied goods and services while on their trip, supporting a wide range of businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and retailers,’ Sartori told ‘They generally look for quality products and services, and are more prepared to pay the extra cost.’

For many years, the main obstacle to the UAE’s golf tourism sector was that its hotels were among the most expensive in the world. ‘Anyone who was looking at the UAE for a golf vacation had so many different options, whether it was Spain or Turkey or Thailand or other places, where it was so much more affordable,’ Chapleski noted.

And with occupancy rates near 90%, hotels were not keen to offer discounts for golf tourists. ‘I don’t blame the hotels. They didn’t need to do golf deals,’ he points out. At the same time, tour operators in the UAE were not offering packages designed specifically for golfers, so the UAE was really not marketing itself as a golf destination.

But over the past 18 months the UAE’s hotel sector has witnessed major upheaval, with the downturn causing steep drops in hotel occupancies and revenues, and oversupply prompting big discounts in room rates. ‘I really think in the next two years we are going to see a dramatic increase in inbound golf business because of the ability of the hotels to give us better rates,’ Chapleski says. Tour operators are also starting to develop specialised golf packages, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority is now including golf on their familiarisation trips.

Hotels see opportunity

Hotels are also being much more receptive to work with the local golf clubs to offer special travel packages. ‘Now they are using golf as another hook to get people to stay at their hotels, especially in Abu Dhabi, where the oversupply is tremendous, given the addition of over 4,000 rooms in the emirate in the past 18 months,’ he noted.

Mohamed Juma Buamaim, vice chairman and CEO of Golf in Dubai, which organises and promotes the Dubai Desert Classic, says the relationship between golf and tourism is improving, but he agrees that more needs to be done.

‘We have great courses, world class hotels, good weather and a host of international tournaments which attract the best world players from all over the world – in simple words we have all the ingredients for a perfect golf holiday packages. However, we need to be a little more aggressive to realize the full potential of golf tourism,’ he said.

Buamaim believes that the European Tour golf tournaments being held over the next month in the UAE help lay the foundation for its golf tourism sector. ‘Tiger Woods, easily the most marketable player in the world, is making his sixth appearance at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February. His presence, along with that of the new world number one, Lee Westwood, will certainly put the UAE at the global centre-stage once again,’ he said.

For his part, Chapleski is confident that efforts to tap the golf tourism sector will pay off in the next few years. ‘I am bullish. We went through a tough couple of years in 2008 and 2009, but 2010 was an improvement, and I think this year things will continue to get better. By 2012 I am hopeful we will see a significant increase in golf tourism numbers,’ he said.