Golf tourism has a fair way to go to break par in Vietnam

January 13, 2019 - 07:00

Teed Off with Robert Bicknell

By Robert Bicknell

Việt Nam won the “Asia’s Best Golf Destination 2018” award at the World Golf Awards last November. This is the second time Việt Nam has won. In addition, The Grand Ho Tram Strip won for “Asia’s Best Golf Hotel” and Ba Na Hill Golf Club in Đà Nẵng won the title of “Asia’s Best Golf Course”.

The Việt Nam National Tourism Administration (VNAT) says “the tourism sector needs to devise a long-term development plan to popularize and bolster growth and investment in Việt Nam” and chose one of the biggest names in golf, Greg Norman, to act as a tourism representative for the country.

Norman, aka “The Great White Shark” knows a thing or two about golf in Việt Nam as he designed five of the top courses in the country including The Da Nang Dunes Course, The Bluffs at the Ho Tram Strip, and KN Golf Links in Nha Trang.

While working in Việt Nam, Norman said he fell in love with the country and wanted to promote it as an attractive destination for golfers. Well, having been here since the very beginning, I cannot fault him for his beliefs. My only question would be “what took him and the world so long to see it?”

According to VNAT, Việt Nam had received 16 million international tourists since the beginning of 2018, with 1.5 million of them coming to play golf. Not too shabby, but it could be better and, in fact, plans are underfoot to make it a lot better.

One of Asia’s top Golf Tourism gurus, Mark Siegal at GolfAsian, believes golf tourism will be a billion dollar industry here by 2020, and I tend to agree providing it’s developed intelligently.

Part of this includes responsible club owners, careful planning and teamwork. On the government side, there should be lower taxes to allow Việt Nam to compete with other neighbouring countries in the context of price.

One of the biggest problems in Việt Nam’s golf development is that very few golf projects bother with due diligence and just build a club hoping to steal rounds from neighboring clubs. They don’t develop their own markets.

But this is where the Golf Coast is different.

They started with essentially a blank sheet of paper and worked from there. Danang GC and Montgomerie Links could have tried to kill each other in search of the dollar, but instead worked together to market Đà Nẵng as a tourist destination.

If you’ve noticed, the newest and most lauded clubs are along the coastline between Nha Trang and Vũng Tàu. These clubs have, for the most part, heavy investors behind them, a solid business plan, top name designers (Norman, Nicklaus, Montgomerie, Faldo, etc) and high-quality construction.

They even make sure the menus feature dishes from neighboring ASEAN countries so guests feel more at home.

In short, they’re designed, built and managed professionally, which is the way it should be – especially, when you are trying to attract big spending foreign golf tourists, but the biggest hindrance to a boom remains the problem of taxes.

Those of us in the industry know how we got to this point, so there is no need to rehash it here, however, the government needs to work with the golf clubs to develop a way to get what they need and yet still allow the clubs to be priced competitively. A 32 per cent tax (20 per cent SCT + 10 per cent VAT on top) makes golf in Việt Nam too expensive when compared with Thailand or the Philippines.

When Thailand experienced a terrorist bombing or tsunami, many of the golf tourists already booked for holidays switched to Việt Nam, but we couldn’t keep them the following year. Despite their positive comments about the country and the courses, it still came down to value for money.
In that respect, Thailand reigned supreme as it has  many non-golf activities for family members or players who are all “golfed out” and want to just relax. Việt Nam needs to develop more in these areas (and no, I am not talking about “you know what”). I am thinking of amusement parks, shopping, etc.

All in all, I think Việt Nam is on the right track for golf tourism development, and I am very pleased with the top name designers dropping some world class courses here.

But we still have a way to go. — VNS