BANGKOK – Just like Bangkok’s infamous traffic jams, long lines of golf carts at the teeing grounds were once a common sight on Thailand’s many golf courses. But those are distant memories now as the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the flow of hundreds of thousands of golfers who visited the kingdom each year. The recent second wave of local broadcasts in the kingdom has deterred local expatriates from going on the greens.
But authorities have now developed an elaborate golf quarantine program that allows visitors and returning expatriates to complete their mandatory two-week quarantine on golf courses, although it may not do much to contain the financial losses of the tourist-dependent golf industry.
“That’s pretty unusual,” said Masaya Furuta, executive director of the golf division of Siam Motors Group, the auto parts company, when he checked the bi-weekly booking status report for the company’s Siam Country Club, a prestigious club near the seaside resort of Pattaya, in early January.
“You would never see that at this time of the year. Most appointments would be crossed out,” he said as he scanned the many free booking slots, even on the weekend, which is usually the busiest time.
In tropical Thailand, the so-called dry season from November to February is the best time for golfing. It’s a time of little rain and cool temperatures that can drop below 20 ° C in the mornings and evenings, and is the preferred time for golfers facing the cold winters in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea as well as in the US and Europe.
Before the pandemic, the Siam Country Club Old Course was a popular destination for international golfers. (Courtesy of the Siam Country Club)
During the dry season, tee times on the four Siam Country Club courses, particularly the award-winning Old Course, widely known for the annual tournament of the Ladies Professional Golf Association Thailand, were usually booked weeks in advance. Member golfers played with their guests on the weekends, while guest tourists filled in the days of the week.
Siam Country Club is a member-exclusive club, but non-members can book through designated agents to play on weekday and weekend afternoons. These reservations, made primarily by international tourists, can make up half of the club’s bookings. But after COVID-19 reached the country and the borders closed in March, that percentage dropped to near zero. Golf courses also had to be closed to locals when the land was deeply closed.
When the golf courses reopened in May, the absence of foreign golfers didn’t have much of an impact, Furuta said. It was Thailand’s rainy season when many tourists don’t come. Local golfers, relieved to be away from home, made up for any gap and visited the club more often as they had plenty of time. As late as the year-end vacation season, the club was “almost fully booked,” Furuta said, as expats couldn’t fly home to see their families and instead played golf.
At Siam Country Club, caddies now wear protective masks and golf carts have partitions to limit the risk of infection between driver and passenger. (Courtesy of the Siam Country Club)
But since the beginning of January the situation has changed drastically. Following a second wave of COVID-19 cases, the government has designated areas in central Thailand, including Bangkok and Pattaya, as “red zones” and imposed stricter measures on travel and gatherings.
Although golf courses remained open, many expats, especially those from the Japanese community, canceled their rounds of golf and corporate competitions according to the booking codes. At the Siam Country Club, local bookings have dropped to half of the previous year.
“It was bad enough that we lost incoming golfers, but now the locals are also canceling who made up for them,” sighed Furuta. “We keep our fingers crossed that the situation will improve and that the restrictions will be relaxed in February.”
The fairways of the Siam Country Club Old Course are less traveled these days. (Courtesy of the Siam Country Club)
The story is similar for the other 250 or so golf clubs in Thailand. Historically, around 80% of players in Thailand were overseas golfers while only 20% were local, according to Golfasian, a golf tour operator that handles bookings for players visiting Southeast Asia.
As golf vacations become more popular, Southeast Asia has become a popular destination for golfers due to its tropical weather and affordable prices. Thailand is a top choice in the region and welcomes 700,000 golfers every year, according to the Thai Tourism Authority. Thailand accounts for 75% of the bookings that Golfasian normally handles.
“Golfers came to Thailand because there were many world-class golf courses to choose from and the prices were reasonable,” said Boyd Barker, general manager of Golfasian. “You were also here to enjoy the full golf experience – play with a caddy and have a golf cart [per player]. “
Now all of those golfers are gone and golf resorts are turning their attention to the local market. Thailand started allowing tourists to enter the country in late 2020, but only on condition that they stay in quarantine in a hotel for 14 days, which costs both time and money. As a result, few tourists came.
Above: Quarantine accommodation at the Mida Golf Club. Below: A “standard superior” room in the club is the cheapest option for quarantine guests. (Courtesy of Mida Golf Club)
Golf clubs are now struggling to attract the small segment of local golfers with generous promotions. Unico Grande, a Bangkok golf course where approximately 80% of pre-COVID customers were foreign tourists and expats, launched a “buffet” golf promotion in November. Golfers can play as many rounds as they want throughout the day with a single green fee of 450 baht ($ 15) on weekdays and 750 baht on weekends.
Clubs that were previously members only are now open to the general public. The Alpine Golf Club, a championship course where Tiger Woods won its Asian tour in 2000, accepted direct bookings from non-members for 2,700 baht for a midweek round in January. The price, which includes a personal caddy and golf cart, is cheaper than the price it offered to its members’ guests on the weekdays before the pandemic.
Some golf clubs are planning to turn into quarantine locations. Thailand approved a “golf quarantine” program that allows people entering the country to conduct their mandatory 14-day quarantine on golf courses with accommodations. Six golf courses outside of Bangkok are currently eligible for the program.
This driving range in central Bangkok attracted many expats over the year-end vacation as travel restrictions made it difficult for many to return home. The seats are taped to promote social distancing. (Photo by Yukako Ono)
Under the program, travelers are allowed to play golf as soon as they receive negative results from the COVID-19 tests they take during their stay. Detailed rules are expected to be announced in early February. Prices vary, but at Mida Golf Club in Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok, quarantine packages start at around 90,000 baht, including green and cart fees for unlimited rounds of golf. This is more than double the price of a quarantine package in budget-conscious hotels in Bangkok.
Given that travelers in normal hotel quarantines are either not allowed to leave their rooms or are only allowed to take a short walk in the hotel, some people may find the golf quarantine a better alternative, Barker said. Just a few days after the Gulf quarantine regulation was announced, Golfasian had already received a few hundred inquiries from abroad. Mida said it has received booking inquiries from South Korea, one of the club’s strongest customer bases, and Finland, which can proceed once authorities set the detailed rules
But the industry representatives remain cautious. Many golf courses are reluctant to join the program as they have to ban entry to regular customers so they don’t mingle with foreign tourists. “We cannot simply say no to our regular customers, especially those who have already paid for their annual membership,” said one course operator.
A dramatic view of the Mida Golf Club. (Courtesy of Mida Golf Club)
Barker said another downside is that the golf quarantine only applies to travelers from a limited number of countries. “There are only 55 countries on the list … and that excludes most high risk countries like the US and 98% of Europe. Only Asian countries like Japan, Hong Kong, [South] Korea, Vietnam and Singapore are on the list. This is a challenge because a lot of our inquiries come from the US, Germany, Switzerland and others in Europe, “he explained.
The Gulf quarantine may revive a tiny fraction of the traffic Thailand lost in the past year. “We see 2022 will be the more realistic time golfers will travel again [to Thailand] without restrictions, “said Barker.
Some golf course operators are more oriented towards local demand. Siam Country Club, which is opening a new golf course on the outskirts of Bangkok in November, is considering a membership program designed to appeal to Thai golfers living in the area, not just expats and tourists. “COVID has even restricted travel within the country. We need to reach out more to the locals who are always there for us,” Furuta said.
One of the few positives of COVID is that more upper-middle class Thais are playing golf thanks to the extra time and lower golf fees. Some have taken up the sport from scratch, others return after a long hiatus. Many see the fairway as the best place to socialize in the “new normal” world.
“You can’t socialize in town,” says Bordin Unakul, an experienced banker who has been playing golf for 35 years. “We all work from home and can’t sit in the cafes for long, but outside in the square I can feel COVID-free.” He added that he plans to take a week’s vacation in late January to play golf with old school friends in Khao Yai, a mountain resort north of Bangkok. “I play more golf than before,” he chuckled.
“Although we have a lot of golf courses, young Thai people aren’t interested in golf because we don’t have local tournaments with local star players to look up to like in the US or Japan,” said Bordin, who is also a board member of the office of the Education Council of the Thai Ministry of Education. “Maybe we should promote the sport more. Going to the fields and socializing should be a lot healthier than playing video games at home.”