BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) - Glittering temples, bargain-filled markets, stunning beaches and verdant golf courses: for an increasing number of visitors, Thailand is the ideal recession-friendly holiday destination, down to a tee.
At a time of global economic woes, Thailand is marketing itself as a place for good food, sun and sand traps, in the hope that more golfers will help rescue a floundering tourism industry that still comprises 6 percent of GDP.
"As counterintuitive as it seems, the recession is actually helping Thailand," said Mark Siegel, director of golf tour operator Golfasian, which handles 4,000 overseas golfers a year.
"For example, North Americans normally travel to Scotland and Ireland for their golf holidays. This year however, it has become prohibitively expensive for some. Therefore, rather than cancel their travels, these same golfers are selecting Thailand."
Siegel says Thailand's relative value for money, and 260 golf courses, is one of the reasons why his business has been growing 10 percent a year and is expected to grow 10-20 percent in 2010.
And the estimated $800 million local golf tourism industry appears to be doing better than the overall tourism industry.
A recent study by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce predicted tourist arrivals would drop by as much as 20 percent this year from 2008 levels.
Thailand has struggled to lure tourists back since political demonstrations shut down Bangkok's airports in December. Deadly riots in April that forced the cancellation of an Asian summit also did little to soothe would-be visitors.
"We cannot ignore factors like the world economic crisis, Thailand's political situation and declining disposable incomes," said Boyd Barker, general manager of Hua Hin Marriott & Spa, which estimates 10-15 percent of its guests are golfers.
Little wonder, then, that Thai tourism has turned to golf as a way to buoy its fortunes, with hotel groups, tour operators and golf properties banding together in the "Golf in a Kingdom" (www.golfinakingdom.com) marketing campaign.
To the Asians who form the bulk of Thailand's golfing tourists, the country has long been seen as a relative bargain when compared with more well-known properties abroad.
At Phuket's Blue Canyon golf course, one of the most expensive, visiting golfers pay up to 5,600 baht ($164), compared with $495 at Pebble Beach in the United States.
And golfers do not only shell out on green fees. They also make up a generally affluent group of who spend substantial sums of money on restaurants, massages, shopping and hotels.
"A big number of Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans and Europeans are playing golf in the major tourist attractions. But many of them do not come to Thailand just to play golf," said Santi Chudintra, director of the Americas Market Division for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
But the game also has its critics.
The Global Anti-Golf Movement (www.antigolf.org) has charged golf with diverting important resources into course development, polluting the land with chemicals, among other crimes.
Yet the game described by author Mark Twain as "a good walk spoiled" still has many local fans.
LPGA tour member Kate Dunn considers golf one of the pluses of living in Thailand, despite frustrations such as compulsory caddies and higher fees for foreigners at some courses.
"I have played golf in over 100 countries, and the reason why I have settled for so long in Thailand is because of the high quality of golf courses located close to one another," said the Australian player. "The experience is unlike any other country."
Editing by Miral Fahmy