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“Vijay’s a fantastic attraction: A golfing bonanza goes begging

29/03/2012

Fiji’s unemployed cry out for more employment.  The tourism industry plans a major expansion over the next ten years. Fiji’s Vijay Singh, watched by billions of TV viewers, wins golf championships throughout the world.  And a national tourism and golfing bonanza goes begging.

Tourism Expansion for Golf?

With major expansions of tourist inflows being envisaged for the next decade. The usual pull-factors are seen to be resorts, sun, sea, surf, beaches, shopping, cultural experiences, and even eco-tourism.   ButFiji’s planners must not forget a niche market and a potentially fantasticFijiasset which can attract tourists- Fijian golfing holidays.

We are expecting and encouraging thousands of tourists fromJapan,Korea,United StatesandEurope.  In especially the first two, golf has typically been an activity for the wealthy upper crust.  But with their rising per capita incomes, their tourists are increasingly from ordinary middle classes who would love to play golf, but would find it out of reach in their own countries. Can we fill a niche market here?

Our Golfing Gems

Our current golf courses were set up in the colonial days, wherever there were concentrations of white pukka sahibs.  While there must be numerous better sites, most of our current ones are not only close to Fiji’s towns (which have little else to offer tourists) but are also beautiful gems which have never been encouraged to sparkle.

The challenging Nadi Airport Golf course meanders over delightful terrain, with greens on hill tops; with planes thunderously taking off and landing; with mountains towering in the distance; with the sea sparkling on one side; with the Club House even sitting right next to a wonderful beach, an asset in itself.

The Lautoka, Ba and Labasa courses push sweating players around tussocked hills and vales, tricky green placements.  There are the ever-present sweet-smelling canefields, with cattle and goats providing exotic and disinterested witnesses to every duffed shot.

The fantastic Vatukoula course, winding majestically around the hill-top club house, with some of the most magnificent mountain scenery and golfing experience to be found inFiji.  Who would forget hitting bravely from a hilly tee, with the ball pretending to rocket across cavernous valleys, only to plummet to the mid-way stream, viciously located to trap the big hitter.  Or the blind uphill tee-off, for the ball to land in an unseen narrow valley, from where yet another blind uphill second hit is required to land on an unseen green somewhere beyond.  A course where the caddies are charming, ridiculously cheap, and actually do honestly look for your golf balls, instead of stealing them.

But the question remains, would tourists come toFijito play golf at these courses?

Poor Course Conditions

 

Fiji’s golf players will agree that all our non-commercial golf courses (except for one) are in very poor, underdeveloped and unattractive conditions.

 

The putting greens are rugged; the fairways are bare and generally lacking in trees;  the clubhouses are dilapidated, with poor facilities; driving ranges, if available, are inconvenient; the practice facilities for putting, chipping and sand strokes, are usually non-existent; the changing rooms, toilets and showers are guaranteed to turn gentle stomachs; and forget about food.

 

There is a vicious circle here.  The clubs cannot improve the facilities and services because the numbers of players (members and visitors) are not high enough to generate the revenues required.   And the numbers of players (members and visitors) will not increase because the facilities are too poor.

 

How can this vicious circle be broken?

 

Need for Golfing Enterprises

 

Each non-commercial golf course could easily support a money-making hotel-to-hotel tourist golfing enterprise, using the golf course during working hours in week-days when the golf courses are not heavily patronised by the regular members.

 

In the morning, a good quality mini-bus picks up the tourists (men, women and children) from their hotel.  Golf clubs are rented, if necessary.  Coaching is provided on the driving range (with the help of high-speed video cameras).  The tourists go out with the caddies, paying a course fee.  Our hot weather encourages the sale of cool drinks.  Lunch is provided after the 18 holes or 9 holes, whatever the tourist wants- sushi, sashimi, pies, or good old fish and chips.  Bigger margins are made on beers and wines.  And the tourists are safely dropped back to their hotels.

 

All the services would be charged at rates which most tourists would find quite attractive, given what they pay in their own countries and even in the up-marketFijiresorts.  A hundred dollars per day per tourist would not be unreasonable for the all-inclusive package.

 

And there would be employment generation associated with every service provided.  There is no shortage of caddies, who could earn more in a day than is earned by garment workers.  Quite a few of our current caddies, with proper training, could easily make the transition to being teaching assistants and eventually club professionals.  There would be employment arising from the food and transport services, not to mention the course up-keep.

 

But who will start off such a nation-wide project?

 

Golfclubs must develop or perish

 

Many current clubs might be reluctant to encourage rich tourists to play on their courses, in case they price the game out of the reach of the regular local members, and/or clog up the courses.  These are legitimate concerns.

 

But of course, there can be different fees for regular members and tourists.  And tourists could be allowed to play only at the times when the courses are not heavily used by members.

 

And the plus for members would be that with increased revenues for the clubs, golf and non-golf facilities and services can be upgraded for Members as well as tourists.

 

Golf clubs also need to look ahead and keep in mind that if their courses are not developed in the national and public interest, there will eventually be public pressure for alternative use of the considerable land assets involved.

 

Let us face the facts: the financial returns from the acres of land at all our golf courses are so pitiful, that there can be no economic justification for the use of this land for the sports enjoyment of a few hundred privileged players.  Especially when most cities and towns are facing acute shortages of land for housing and commercial development.

 

This needs no explanation for the Vatuwaqa course.  It should also be clear that the Nadi Golf Course is taking up prime land that could be vital for the further development of facilities at theNadiAirport, including hotel sites.  And so on at all our other non-commercial golf courses, if not now, eventually.

 

In the old colonial days, the development of the golf courses in the public and national interest, would not have been a high priority for the white pukka sahibs who typically played golf.  Our current golfers (white and black alike) cannot afford to take this laid-back attitude.

 

There is no option but for the Golf Courses to be developed into municipal and national assets, which generate employment and incomes, as well as sporting enjoyment for our citizens.

 

But who will start the ball rolling, if the clubs won’t?

 

Fiji Visitors Bureau and Air Pacific?

 

For such golfing ventures to take off, there will be need for financing, co-ordination and training.   There will need to be loans for appropriate enterprises and golf course development; training for current unskilled workers at the courses, to provide reasonable quality services, such as meals and golfing instruction and course development; and measures to prevent crimes at the courses.

 

The Government Ministry which is responsible for employment creation, could provide the co-ordination, with participation by the national golfing organisation. Above all, there would be the need for a concerted sales and promotion effort in tourism source markets.

 

The Fiji Visitors’ Bureau could be an obvious participant in that effort.  So also could Air Pacific, which is wisely developing vertical linkages in the tourism industry by building resorts for the passengers it carries.  Both could sell golfing holidays as part of their overall tourist packages.

 

And surely, we would have no difficulty advertisingFiji’s golf courses internationally?

 

A Vijay Singh Ad?

 

How often have the world’s TV and radio channels, the newspapers and journals, trumpeted the message- Fiji’s Vijay Singhwins this or that, defeats Greg Norman or Ernie Els, or some other world champion?

 

The world instantly recognises the face of black, towering Vijay Singh, and thinks ofFiji.  Why do we continue to neglect this advertising treasure?

 

Can you imagine a Fiji Visitors Bureau or Air Pacific advertisement, aimed at our tourist source markets, showing how Vijay Singh started his golf career as a caddy, in one of our exotic golf courses.

 

Smiling and barefoot, in ragged clothes (like our current caddies).  Poetically smashing a ball 300 yards with the ubiquitous guava stick that features regularly in the myths.  Chewing sugar cane or drinking from a coconut for refreshment.  And saying, in his typical American drawl, “you don’t have to start golf the way I did, to win.  Come toFijinow, and we will make it easier for you”.

 

Surely such an ad must attract tourists toFiji, golf players and non-players alike.

 

Can we please get going before Vijay Singh’s fees for the ads rise beyond our means?  Although giving him our highest national decoration might help to keep his fees down.

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