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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia sees green in bid to lure golf tourists

Cambodia sees green in bid to lure golf tourists

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TRACEY SHELTON

A man tees off at Phokeethra Country Club in Siem Reap, which hosted the country’s first international golfing event in November last year.

Cambodia is teeing up to take advantage of the golf mania that’s swept through neighboring Southeast Asian countries, which have been cashing in on a worldwide golf tourism boom that late last year was valued at US$20 billion.

Last year two new golf courses were opened in Cambodia, bringing the Kingdom’s total to four, but at least another four are scheduled to be built by 2010. 

About 50 million golfers are estimated to roam the world on an annual odyssey to find new, relatively undiscovered greens, and Cambodia is nicely set to capture a good chunk of this market over the coming decade.

Last year, neighboring Vietnam was named the undiscovered golf destination of the year by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, an industry body comprising 1,040 companies from 73 countries.

There are 15 golf courses in Vietnam with 30 more being planned, including courses designed by legendary golf champions Greg Norman of Australia and Scotsman Colin Montgomerie

The international association also named Malaysia as the best golf destination in Southeast Asia. Malaysian golf tourism generated more than $242 million in 2007.

Thailand has also sprung to the fore in golf tourism in the region. The game was first played there in the 1920s by the king and his course, Hua Hin, was opened up for intrepid pioneering golf tourists, although players often had to contend with tigers and other wildlife that frequently roamed the links.

The economic boom in Thailand in the early 1990s spawned a concomitant boom in golf for both the tourism and domestic sectors, and courses mushroomed across the nation to the degree that trading in golf memberships became a highly lucrative speculative earner, up until the economic collapse of 1997-98.

Myanmar also has a relatively large golf industry, with the game popular among senior military officers.

Cambodia, though, has had a slow entry into golf tourism. But this is about to change. Asia Golf Business reported in January that Cambodia “explodes with luxury golf courses… in a bid to lure more high-end tourism from the fast-growing sport in Asia.”

Last year, the Kingdom’s first two PGA-rated courses were opened in Siem Reap. Suos Yara, secretary general of Cambodia Golf Association, announced that a third course backed by South Korean investors will open there in 2009.

Three other multi-million-dollar golf projects are also under construction near Phnom Penh and along the border with Vietnam. Another is planned near Sihanoukville.

Suos Yara said that the government hopes to eventually see at least seven courses in Siem Reap and about ten near the seaside.

Cambodia’s profile as a golfing destination received a major boost when the Phokeethra Country Club in Siem Reap hosted the country’s first international golfing event in November 2007. 

The inaugural $300,000 Johnnie Walker Cambodian Open was played at the newly opened club, with Prime Minister Hun Sen teeing off the first ball of the tournament.

Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han told Cambodia in Focus that the tournament proved that the game was thriving in the region.

“The game continues to prosper in Asia and with a new initiative in Cambodia our next plan of action will be to help new golfing nations to develop the game, and one of the best ways to attract new golfers is to expose them to international-class competitions,” Kyi Hla Han said.

After more than two decades of neglect, golf received a boost in popularity in 1999 when the Kingdom entered ASEAN and top Cambodian officials began meeting regularly in golfing nations like Singapore and Thailand.

This led to the emergence of the golfing “ambassador” for Cambodia in the guise of the Prime Minister himself. Hun Sen is an avid golf player with a handicap of 15.

Two full-scale 18-hole golf courses were developed in Phnom Penh in the mid 1990s, but security issues made a round of golf a dicey proposition.

The Japanese Marubeni group magazine M-Spirit reported in September 2004, “There are two full-scale golf courses on the outskirts of Phnom Penh but, due to concerns about nearby robberies around the time of their opening in 1997, playing golf there – accompanied by security guards – was a rather nerve-wracking experience.

“With Cambodia’s entry into ASEAN in 1999, Cambodians all at once took up the sport of golf at the encouragement of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who almost seemed to be suggesting, ‘If we can’t play golf, we can’t be a member of ASEAN,’” it added.

Reid Sheftall, an American doctor in Phnom Penh, in his new book Striking it Rich: Golf in the Kingdom with Generals, Patients and Pros, describes his initial Cambodian golfing experience playing high-stakes golf with Cambodia’s generals: “Guys who light cigars with hundred dollar bills don’t like to see you do it – not with their money.”

While there was a golf course past the airport in the 1960s, it reverted to grazing land during decades of war.

The Royal Cambodia Golf Club, 10km west of Phnom Penh, opened in 1996, and brought golf back to the Kingdom.

The 7,075-yard course is rather flat yet still provides a challenge with numerous sand and water hazards, including a large lake near the third hole.

Being the closest course to Phnom Penh, it is popular with local dignitaries and it is said to be the prime minister’s preferred course, possibly because he got a hole-in-one here in 2004.

The Cambodia Golf & Country Club, 35km west of Phnom Penh, was the second 18-hole golf course to open in Cambodia, in 1996. The 7,000 plus yard course has a pleasant rural aspect, and is challenging, with a large number of bunkers.

In early 2007 the Sofitel Phokeethra Country Club opened 15km west of Siem Reap.  Cambodia’s first internationally managed golf course has a par of 72, stretches 7,145 meters and its natural lakes, water hazards, fast greens and tricky bunkers challenge golfers of all levels.

About 500 golfers have visited the club each month since it opened in April and hosted the country’s first major international golfing event in November.

In November 2007, the Nick Faldo-designed Angkor Golf Course opened and this magnificent expanse could, according to golf nuts, emerge as one of the best courses in the Asia-Pacific region. The course, close to the heart of Siem Reap, is a lengthy 7,230 yards and has a 72 par. It also offers plenty of challenges.

The Angkor Golf Resort received 1,000 visitors in its first month.

Last August, UK daily The Guardian reported on an unusual golf resort joint venture that’s certain to capture world attention and bring more golfers to the Kingdom.

Cambodian and Malaysian companies will team up to build a $100-million golf course straddling the border of Cambodia and Vietnam in a region heavily bombed by US forces during the 1960s and ‘70s.

The new Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Golf Resort, to be developed jointly by Cambodia’s Bada Investment Co and a Malaysian firm, VXL will take five years to build and will have nine holes in each country, as well as a 450-room, five-star hotel.

A helicopter service will be able to carry visitors from Siem Reap to the resort.

But a burgeoning golf industry will bring more to Cambodia than just well-heeled tourists, as it will also spawn golf shops selling golf clubs and bags, golf clothing and paraphernalia and also provide employment for caddies, green keepers, and staff at the courses and clubs.

 

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