new horizons
in golf travel

Countries without a strong native golfing tradition, including Turkey, Vietnam and Morocco, have embraced the sport — and the high-end travelers it draws — as part of their overall tourism strategies.

Tazegzout Golf, 15 minutes north of the Moroccan city of Agadir, offers incredible ocean views. (Courtesy of ONMT/FRMG)

Tazegzout Golf, 15 minutes north of the Moroccan city of Agadir, offers incredible ocean views. (Courtesy of ONMT/FRMG)

One afternoon in early June, I sat on the veranda of the Montgomerie Maxx Royal golf course clubhouse in Belek, Turkey, lunching with the facility’s golf director, Gulsah Yilmaz, and local guide Cengiz Aykota.

While we sipped beverages from our position perched above the 18th green, a group of approximately a dozen English golfers at the next table were enjoying some pints as they discussed their round, their Turkish golf vacation and whatever it is that golfers tend to discuss after a morning on the course. 

Turning to me, Yilmaz explained that Belek and the surrounding region within Turkey’s coastal Mediterranean Antalya province often draws groups of fervent golfers.

“They don’t care about the sun,” she said of such groups. “They are here, only playing golf, for seven days.”

According to research conducted in 2021 by the R&A, which governs golf in the U.K. and much of the world, there were 66.6 million golfers globally as of 2021. Those individuals fueled a global golf tourism market that the San Francisco-based consulting firm Grand View Research valued at $21.7 billion in 2021. Grand View projects the golf tourism market will grow to almost $42 billion by 2030. 

Turkey is among countries with little indigenous golfing history that is looking to boost tourism by tapping into that growth. Other countries, including Vietnam and Morocco, also turned to golf course development in the years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, even as the sport slumped in traditional markets such as the U.S. and the U.K. Such moves have positioned those countries to take advantage of the golf resurgence brought about by the pandemic. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has its own ambitious agenda to grow the game there.

“People are trying to do this because they recognize golf is an amenity that travelers like,” said John Steinbreder, a golf author and the travel editor at Global Golf Post, who early this year helped launch a pro-am competition in Morocco pitting local players against Americans. “It’s just one more thing to bring them there. I get the sense it is working very well in Morocco.”

Golf also draws the coveted well-heeled visitor. 

In Morocco, golf tour operators typically book packages that cost around 2.5 times the standard tourism package to the country, according to the Moroccan National Tourist Office. 

In Los Cabos, Mexico, where the golf market has built up in earnest since the early 1990s, the average tourist who plays golf spends $3,000, compared with an overall tourist average of $2,300, said Los Cabos Tourism Board managing director Rodrigo Esponda. 

Until just a few decades ago, Antalya didn’t have any golf at all. Now, the Belek area is home to 16 courses, all built with tourism in mind. Several have famous designers, including English golf legend Nick Faldo and Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie. Cumulatively, Yilmaz said, those courses host nearly 600,000 rounds annually, bringing an economic impact of $130 million to the region. 

The golf courses, which are mostly associated with surrounding resort hotels, have enabled those properties to remain open year-round rather than closing for the winter when the beach crowds disappear, she said. 

Aykota, my guide, said during my visit that Belek is now mainly dependent on golf tourism. “We have the beach and the sand,” he said. “But first comes golf.”


The fifth hole at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Puerto Los Cabos golf course in Mexico. (Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism Board)

The fifth hole at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Puerto Los Cabos golf course in Mexico. (Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism Board)

Los Cabos’ path to the greens

For inspiration on the visitation impact that golf course development can bring to heretofore golf backwaters, developers, investors and tourism authorities in Turkey and elsewhere might do well to look at the Los Cabos example. 

Esponda said that Fonatur, Mexico’s national trust for the promotion of tourism, commissioned the first course there in 1987. Originally publicly owned, the Vidanta Los Cabos course is now in private hands. 

Private development followed in the early 1990s, beginning with two courses designed by golfing great Jack Nicklaus. These days, the Los Cabos area has 18 golf courses, including one — Diamante Dunes — that is ranked among the top 100 in the world by Golf Magazine. Another three courses are in the works, including the area’s second Tiger Woods-designed 18-hole layout. 

Esponda attributed the success of the golf industry in Los Cabos to a combination of its rugged seaside location; its dry, sunny climate; and the fact that from its early days, Los Cabos had a high-end tourism market, which initially revolved around deep-sea fishing. 

These days, only about 6% of tourists who visit the peninsular destination cite golf as the primary purpose for the trip. But golf, said Esponda, continues to have an outsize influence in the area’s growth, playing a central role in real estate and hotel development. 

“There would be no way that Los Cabos would be what it is today without golf,” he said. “And if we would speak about the area in five years, it would be the same. In order to maintain the level of competitiveness and attractiveness of the destination, there has to be golf attached to the residential areas.”


The sixth hole at Quivira Golf Club shows the rugged coastal beauty of Los Cabos, where the golf market has built up in earnest since the early 1990s. (Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism Board)

The sixth hole at Quivira Golf Club shows the rugged coastal beauty of Los Cabos, where the golf market has built up in earnest since the early 1990s. (Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism Board)

Development in full swing

Vietnam, especially the central coastal city of Danang, is one of the newest destinations banking on a tourism boost from golf. Currently, Vietnam has approximately 100 golf courses. But the pace of development is fast: The Vietnam National Authority of Tourism said last year that 200 courses were expected to be operating by 2025, up from 40 in 2019. 

Mark Siegel, director of Golfasian, a leading Asia golf tour operator, compared Vietnam’s coastal terrain, which is studded with high sand dunes, to the terrain of renowned sand belt golf courses near Melbourne, Australia. 

“The golf, especially along the coastline, is as good as anywhere in the world,” he said. 

It’s good enough, in fact, that Golfasian now offers a wide variety of packaged itineraries to Vietnam, including a seven-day Danang trip and excursions of up to 16 days that wind through Vietnam and Cambodia, combining rounds of golf with historic and cultural tourism, including visits to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. 

As in other destinations, Vietnam course developers have commissioned famed designers and golf champions to lay out their courses, including Faldo, Nicklaus, Montgomerie and legendary architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. A 2022 article in the publication Vietnam Investment Review noted that just 28% of Vietnam’s golf courses were at least 10 years old. 

As the country delves full-speed into the travel golf marketplace, it will attempt to chip away at the visitation share enjoyed by more mature golf markets in nearby Thailand and Malaysia, especially for visitors from Pacific Rim golfing juggernauts South Korea, Japan and Australia. 

“The resort market has begun to enter the saturation phase. To take the lead, Vietnam needs a unique type of tourism, and golf is the answer to this,” said Nguyen Trung Khanh, general director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, during the Hanoi Golf Cultural Exchange Week event last fall, Vietnam Investment Review reported. 

He said that by 2030, the development of golf tourism and related infrastructure will be a key part of Vietnam’s tourism industry. 

“This will not only help diversify products and improve tourism’s competitiveness but also help the industry attract visitors with high net worth for long stays,” Trung Khanh said. 

Siegel said that upscale real estate projects are planned on the surrounds of many of Vietnam’s new golf courses, but most of those projects are likely still several years off. More hotel development around golf courses will bolster the country’s golf tourism offering. 

While Vietnam’s golf course-building boom is in full swing, Morocco’s could be winding down. But the two decades after 2000 saw a ramp-up of course development in the Northern African kingdom. Now, facilitating the recognition of Morocco as a golf destination is a priority of the Moroccan National Tourist Office. 

There are 40 golf courses spread mostly among the cities and major tourist markets of Morocco, with the largest concentration in Marrakech. Two more projects are under development at present, according to the Royal Moroccan Federation of Golf. 

Golf-related tourism hasn’t yet returned to pre-Covid levels in the kingdom, when it drew an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people annually. But the tourist board has set a target of doubling Morocco’s prepandemic golf tourism figures by 2030. 

“To surpass pre-Covid visitor numbers, the tourism board is diligently creating platforms that connect partners with travel operators and advisors to create and sell innovative programs that enhance Morocco’s offerings,” said Siham Fettouhi, the tourist office’s director for the U.S. and Canada. “Our commitment aims to ignite a surge of growth within the industry, positioning Morocco as a top golfing destination worldwide.”

The Moroccan National Tourist Office is partnering with the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, arranging fams for tour operators and golf journalists from the U.S. and Europe, attending golf trade shows and engaging in marketing campaigns to bring new exposure to Moroccan golf. 

Another key promotional element for Moroccan golf are the annual professional tournaments contested at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam near Rabat on the men’s DP World Tour and the Ladies European Tour.


Barry Jones of Surrey, England, at Faldo Cornelia in Antalya, Turkey. (Photo by Robert Silk)

Barry Jones of Surrey, England, at Faldo Cornelia in Antalya, Turkey. (Photo by Robert Silk)

Teeing off

Saudi Arabia is also leveraging professional golf to promote its ambitions — in a controversial strategy.

The LIV Golf tour, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, brought about a rift at the highest levels of men’s professional golf when it debuted last year, competing head-to-head against the sport’s primary established entities, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour. 

Since that time, however, the three tours have announced a merger framework, which is facing scrutiny from Congress and U.S. antitrust regulators. 

While LIV has garnered headlines, it’s just one facet of Saudi Arabia’s goal to develop golf, both for the local populace and as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping $1 trillion plan to make the kingdom a global tourism draw. 

Golf Saudi, the country’s golf federation, was founded in 2019 with an eight-pillar vision for 2030. Creating a golf tourism industry is one of them. 

“As the international tourism proposition evolves in modern Saudi Arabia, Golf Saudi will generate interest among one of the most lucrative travel demographics: golfers,” reads the Golf Saudi website. “This will allow the kingdom to tell a wider story about the future of Saudi Arabia, using golf to capture the imagination of travelers around the world and uniting stakeholders to create a sporting and wider tourism offer that people will travel across the world to experience.”

Saudi Arabia has just a handful of publicly accessible golf courses today, but Golf Saudi is targeting approximately a dozen more by 2030, including one being designed by Nicklaus as part of the massive Qiddiya resort and entertainment project that the Saudi state has in development near Riyadh.