The Cambodia Golf Association wants at least 50 greens in the country, but the funding needed to boost golf tourism is drying up as the credit crisis bites
A caddy holds a golf flag as a man putts at the Angkor Golf Resort in Siem Reap province.
THE sun rises over Angkor Wat, while nearby dozens of female caddies wearing long-sleeved green shirts and wide-brimmed hats await golfers.
The 18-hole Angkor Golf Resort designed by golfing legend Nick Faldo opened a year ago, becoming Cambodia's second professional-level golf course.
This is exactly what the government has in mind when it says it wants to lure well-heeled travellers.
"We are developing more golf courses in order to attract more tourists to visit the country," says Minister of Tourism Thong Khon.
"Tourists can visit the Angkor Wat temples and stay to play golf in one trip."
At least four more luxury courses are now in various stages of construction in Cambodia, which drew more than two million tourists last year but hopes to draw three million in 2010 and five million by 2012.
Golf is part of the plan to get visitors to stay longer than the few days it takes to visit the ancient Angkor temples, but the government's strategy to diversify its tourism industry might have landed in the sand trap of the global financial crisis.
There are only four commercial courses in Cambodia right now, although the head of the national golf association, Suos Yara, thinks there needs to be at least 50 greens to nurture the game among locals and transform the country into a true golfing destination. But as tourist arrivals slow amid the gathering global economic storm, he knows that dream looks increasingly distant.
"Many [Asian] investors want to build more golf courses here but because of the financial crisis, they have pushed back their projects," Suos Yara says.
Even the pristine Angkor Golf Resort, which was averaging more than 700 golfers a month, is starting to notice the drop in interest, says its manager Adam Robertson.
"I have already seen a decline in the number of visitors compared to last year. Usually in the time of a crisis the annual holiday is cancelled first," said Robertson.
"Without a doubt this [financial crisis] is a major worry for all hospitality-oriented businesses."
Yet golf is here to stay. Defence Minister Tea Banh last month teed off with Thai military officials in a spot of golf diplomacy before talks aimed at resolving the Preah Vihear border dispute.
The sport is so beloved at the highest levels of government that Cambodia's senate has its own nine-hole course.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's golf scores are posted on his cabinet website, even though he has a handicap of 15.
Earlier this year the premier, a huge golf fan, said he even wanted a luxury course built in the former Khmer Rouge rebel stronghold of Pailin.
Cambodia's leaders have also approved plans for a luxury golf course in Bokor national park, a protected wildlife area.
And despite the worldwide economic slowdown, the country's profile in the sport will be further lifted when the Asia Golf Tour stops by next week for the second annual Cambodia Open.
"Golf is still a new sport in Cambodia, but I think it will continue to grow," Robertson said.
However, there is still a long way to go as the sport remains alien to most Cambodians, he said, adding that the Angkor Golf Resort had to teach some 350 employees the rules.
"Not only do we at Angkor Golf Resort train our caddies, but we have taken it upon ourselves to train new golfers in the etiquette of golf," he said. AFP