Golf thrives, but on unregulated course

Updated: 2013-07-06 07:11

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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If you haven't heard of Zhangjiajie, think about Hollywood blockbuster Avatar that reportedly drew inspiration from the beautiful, rugged mountainous area in southern China for its special-effect illusions in the "Pandora" jungle.

Coincidentally, Zhangjiajie in Hunan province that attracts millions of middle-class tourists every year is also embroiled in a conflict between modern man and nature, where local officials and developers are defying a national ban on building new golf courses in order to protect farmland and conserve water. Their first unauthorized 18-hole course, designed by an American architect and named a sports ecological park as a disguise, is already up and running. Investors are pushing forward another two despite political pressures and opposition from local people.

Yet Zhangjiajie is just one of the salient examples of a policy conundrum that has been troubling the public, government and developers for years.

Industry figures show that the number of golf courses in China has soared to about 600 from 170 in 2004, when the government imposed a moratorium on building new courses. A total of 39 new "illegal" courses opened last year, albeit catering only to members on a trial basis as they tried to skirt around the ban.

The army of Chinese golfers, defined as those who have played at least one round in the past 12 months, has swollen to more than 1 million and keeps increasing. The rising popularity of golf is palpable with long queues at driving ranges becoming more common and games slowing to a snail's pace on popular courses, especially on weekends.

However, while many professionals are taking to golf, some still perceive it as an elitist pastime of the moneyed class. While courses are generally built in beautiful, green surroundings, they are often regarded as a ruse for housing developers and a potential threat to the natural environment. In answer to such concerns, the government responded with harsh measures, including the ban on new courses and hefty tax on golf equipment as luxuries.

But now golf fans and opponents both are mocking the policies, for they have largely been ignored by local officials and found to be self-contradictory sometimes.

Most provinces and cities have been adamant in their quest to have more golf courses to attract more investment and tourists. Top government agencies, too, differ in their views on the issue. While those in charge of land, housing and the environment refuse to budge from their tough stance against new courses, the pro-golf camp comprising culture, sports and tourism departments encourages the development of courses and considers the curbs too rigid and unrealistic.

The messy situation is troubling golfers, too, because driven by a sense of insecurity and hot market demand, golf facilities are jacking up their fees.

I used to hit a bucket of 100 balls for about 40 yuan ($6.5) at a neighborhood driving range as part of my once-a-week, hassle-free workout regime. There are a couple of low-end, pay-and-play golf courses in Beijing's suburbs for people like me who are not club members but still want to head out to the course once in a while.

But my neighborhood driving range has been closed for renovation since early this year. When it reopens after several more weeks, we were told, most bays would be equipped with private rooms where club members could take a shower, watch TV or enjoy a round of mahjong with friends. And my favorite course has recently stopped issuing prepaid discount cards to visitors. It is working on converting them into members who have to pay an upfront fee of 150,000 yuan or more.

It is probably futile to teach "illegal" operators how to make their services accessible to more people to get higher returns in the future. Perhaps the current uproar on golf courses in the mountains of Zhangjiajie could be the beginning of the end for the chaos in the golf industry.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 07/06/2013 page5)