Golf vacations in the Balkans

While Mamaia is launching its new anthem Viva Mamaia, urging tourists to joyful party hardy, our neighbors to the south of the Danube are hosting the international golf tournament Volvo World Matchplay Championship near Balchik, at Thracian Cliffs, an event that prompts elegance, harmony and competition. The two neighboring countries couldn’t possibly have a more different approach to developing their seaside tourism.

It’s my feeling that Mamaia targets mainly young adults (25 and under?) who are eager to party and like loud music, who go to nightclubs, lay on the beach sun tanning and, for those who can afford, maybe even practice some water sports. In that sense it reminds me of Bodrum. Tourists are mostly here during the summer season and particularly on weekends thanks to the new highway from Bucharest. Based on services being advertised the typical tourists might also include young couples with small children (I’ve seen an advertisement for baby daycare services).

I’m not familiar in detail with the tourism market, but it seems to me that the tourists the Romanian seaside doesn’t cater to are precisely those people who can afford to spend more money on their vacation. Let’s say people over the age of 35-40, whose children are already grown up or have their own families and who usually vacation separately. These tourists are interested in different kinds of services (they don’t spend that much time sun tanning). I’m not referring particularly to those who go to the seaside for mud therapies at Techirghiol or for Ana Aslan treatments. But I am not excluding them either.

I believe that modern tourism offers must include golf. All great vacation destinations have golf courses. Golf is an Anglo-Saxon sport (invented in Scotland several hundred years ago!), considered a purely capitalist sport (in Romania it was banned by the communists), but unjustly considered a sport for the elites. In the past few decades, it spread throughout Europe as a sport for the masses. It has clear rules, it stimulates fair-play and rewards results for any level of training and game mastering.

In countries such as Germany or Austria, over one million and, respectively, one hundred thousand people (many couples) play golf. The Czech Republic has almost 100 golf courses (almost all built in the past 20 years). Not to mention the U.S., where over 25 million people play golf. The numbers, even if approximate, show that this sport is populist if anything, not exclusive. In Scotland, half of the population plays golf. Golf also became an Olympic sport for the amateurs, in addition to the large, money-making competitions for professional players.

Golf is not a sport for senior citizens who, once retired, have nothing better to do so they take up golf. It’s a sport that can be practiced at any age, between 10 and 90. By young, strong, healthy people as well as by older people, even with health problems. Our modern lifestyle requires exercise. Golf is not only a perfect excuse to exercise (a golf course has a 5,000 – 6,000m track), but it’s also an application of focus, skill and talent. It is a sport for men and women, for grandparents and children. Three generations within a family can be at the same time on the golf course. Anyone can learn how to play. I haven’t met anyone who, after the first golf lessons, didn’t become a passionate player.

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Golf is associated with a certain lifestyle and particularly, with a certain type of vacation. I, for one, discovered golf 13 years ago. Since then, I have been planning my vacations to include a golf course. I found that all of the touristic locations I used to go to also have golf courses, which I hadn’t noticed until then. I started arranging more active vacations by including (besides trips and water sports) playing golf. My family, colleagues and friends caught “the bug” as well. I met many people who are playing, from a variety of backgrounds and professions: a farmer from Bavaria, a bus driver from Scotland, a former officer from Norway, as well as industrialists, bankers, high officials, etc.

I think 20 years ago, golf didn’t even exist in the Balkans. I’ve seen an older course in Athens and in Eastern Europe probably the oldest one is the Royal Club (known today as the Diplomatic Club) of (pre-war) Bucharest. Now I only see newly built, modern courses, nicely adorned with trees, lakes and sand. True works of art! A course has a surface area of 80-100ha, it’s equipped with irrigation and draining systems, and it’s permanently taken care of. An investment of perhaps €3-5 million.

If you live in Bucharest, you can think of golf options in the Balkans as three concentric circles of courses. Locally, Greece and Bulgaria, then Turkey and Cyprus, each more spectacular than the other, completing the vacation offers. Antalya has the most golf courses (over 15 – Cornelia, Gloria, National, Carya, Montgomery, Sueno, Sultan, Pasha, etc.) which, during the holiday season are filled with tourists from Germany, Austria, the Northern countries, but also from Italy, France, Russia and… Romania. Cyprus has 4 golf courses (I think the most impressive one is Aphrodite Hills), then Crete, Rhodes, Peloponnese and Halkidhiki in Greece.

But the most pleasant surprise is Bulgaria, having no less than 5 new, modern, spectacular courses, in the Balchik – Kavarna area (3) and Sofia area (2). The most remarkable is, to me, Thracian Cliffs, which integrates perfectly with Light House and BlackSeaRama. These courses are frequented particularly by Romanians or expats working in Romania. But there are also Germans, Austrians, Irishmen and Englishmen. These are also the closest full-scale golf courses to Bucharest. You can get there in a 3-4 hour drive on A2 highway. For some, Santa Sofia and Pravet (50 km from Sofia) are even closer.

In Romania there isn’t a complete, full-scale golf course, equipped with all of the necessary facilities so we can’t organize an international competition, similar to the one taking place now in Bulgaria (Volvo). But there are many initiatives, a lot of enthusiasm and several quite nice locations. The nicest one is probably Pianu de Jos in Alba having a complete course (18 holes), but with so improvements still to be completed. Then we have 9-hole courses in Breaza (Lac De Verde) and Cluj (training facilities Sun Garden Resort and Transylvania Golf) and a bold attempt in Recas (Timis county). Last but not not least we have the old royal golf course at the Diplomatic Club in Bucharest, paired down to… 6 holes, now also accessible to non-diplomats. In the vicinity of Bucharest, there are only training facilities in Zurbaua and Snagov. Almost every year we hear about a new project and we can only hope that someone will eventually build a full-scale course. A hotel-owner friend of mine invited me to a meeting with 6 mayors at Eforie Nord, in an attempt to pull together 70-80ha of land for a golf course.

But at least Romanians are doing well with a few golf clubs, a Golf Federation, and the Association for Romanian Golf Players of around 3-400 players. As for the golf infrastructure, we’ll just have to be patient. Until then, watch out! – tourism in the Balkans has adapted quickly to modern demands. Exercise and a healthy lifestyle, even on vacation!