ECONOMY

Golf could provide significant boost to Greek tourism revenue

Alternative forms of tourism such as golf have been disastrously ignored by Greek tourism officials for a decade, as it has remained the victim of a reactionary and obsolete mentality. While Greece missed chance after chance to develop for a sport that actually suits its weather and landscape, its rival destinations have made the most of it. In many of the countries where state-of-the-art golf courses have mushroomed over the last 10 years, the sport was not particularly loved by its citizens; they did, however, appreciate the increasing interest in golf internationally, paving the way for year-round tourism, the ultimate target for every holiday destination, including Greece. «Only shortsighted policies would fail to see what happens abroad,» says Theodoros Vassilakis, one of the main backers of Cretan Golf SA that owns Crete’s new 18-hole course. «Such policies are holding Greek tourism hostage to strategies of the past,» he stresses. Comparisons are more than stunning: Greece has just six courses against France’s 534, Spain’s 299, Portugal’s 64, Italy’s 303, Egypt’s 10 and Tunisia’s eight. Turkey currently has 12 courses, but intends to build another 100 in the next four years. Ten years ago, with just four courses operating in Greece, tourism authorities had promised the creation of another 30 courses within five years. Since then, after much pain and anguish as well as lost money by investors, the legal framework may subsidize but does not make viable such enterprising plans; only two new courses have been created since, one nine-hole and one 18-hole, both in Crete. Vassilakis admits that all those who forked out large amounts for the creation of a course in Crete, out of love for their island, knew that the amortization of such an investment would be very difficult given the legislation in Greece. Their only target is to prevent it from being loss-making. «But is this what should be our target, when we aim at attracting such investment in Greece?» he wonders. «Can we just expect some entrepreneurs who love their place of origin to invest, knowing full well there is no chance of breaking even? And why would a foreigner do that? Such questions certainly cannot be answered in the global competitive environment,» Vassilakis observes with disappointment. He recently completed a series of visits to countries known as golf destinations, and his experiences there have compelled him to call for no more time to be lost in Greece, which must immediately proceed to forming an investment framework for the creation of more courses, so that in a few years’ time the domestic touristic product becomes competitive. Vassilakis, also chairman of Aegean Airlines and founder and president of Autohellas/Hertz, views positively the Tourism Development Ministry’s moves toward golf tourism, noting however that efforts to complete the legal framework must speed up. He adds that even Attica’s tourism would benefit from attracting golfers from abroad, using the positive image following the staging of the Olympic Games. In Greater Madrid, he notes, there are 22 courses. The Cretan entrepreneur goes on to reveal that once a new stable legal framework is formed, he and a group of other businesspeople intend to realize investment programs for at least three more golf courses in the broader Attica region, without ruling out entering the tender for a course at Markopoulo, close to the new race course. Winter tourism boost Estimates suggest that if established tourism destinations in Greece (Athens, Crete, Rhodes, Corfu, Peloponnese and Halkidiki) have three golf courses they could become genuine golf destinations, and that if another 10 or so courses are built in other areas within five years, then overall summer tourism could rise by 30 percent (as golfers usually travel with their families). It would also greatly boost winter tourism, which is largely non-existent now, since golfers comprise the only real mass tourism in the winter. According to data from TUI, the world’s largest tour operator, out of 18 million tourists it handles each year some 4 million are golfers, or 22 percent, and the figure is rising. Golfers are fiercely dedicated to their sport and therefore in the summer period they only go to golf destinations to play two or three times, while in the winter, when courses in northern parts are closed, groups of 10-15 players travel to south to play golf every day. They choose destinations with at least three courses, for variety. When Greece becomes such a destination, tour operators will send charter flights over, adding yet more tourists given also the extra hours of winter sunshine in southern Greece. That will boost tourism revenues by some 50 percent, adding 6 billion euros to today’s 12 billion annual haul. Protecting wildlife It is worth noting that for an 18-hole golf course some 500,000-600,000 square meters of land space is required. Courses are not built in expensive areas, to keep costs down. Each course consumes about 200,000 cubic meters of water annually, far less than farms of similar size. Modern golf courses are watered by advanced technology irrigation networks: They have special sensors that send messages to a computer, which determines when and for how long each section of the course needs to be watered. These systems are hyperautomatic and the irrigation system for an 18-hole course costs about 1 million euros. Modern courses also upgrade the animal life of their area because upkeep is generally free of weedkillers. That is because ultramodern lawnmowers are used that cut the grass to 20mm three times a week, rendering impossible the growth of weeds. This also protects the environment, as for the best part of the course the non-poisonous type of fertilizer complesal is used, while for the greens – the finishing areas of each hole, where the grass is like a carpet for the ball to roll on smoothly – special fertilizers are used, again containing no poison. A case in point is the course in Crete, where in the 19 months of its operation its fauna has been enriched with rabbits, blackbirds, partridges and many other birds.