Eastern Europe ready to tee it up

More mature golf markets such as Spain have competition from other emerging areas as well. Bulgaria and other countries in Eastern Europe see themselves as potential major competition for places like the Costa del Sol.

The Black Sea and its beaches have long been a tourist destination for Eastern Europeans because of their mild weather conditions; now all countries along the sea are pushing resort developments in hopes of attracting tourists from further away.

The newest golf project in Bulgaria is BlackSeaRama in Balchik. Gary Player designed the course as part of a master plan by the British firm of Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo. Player also is doing another Black Sea course-Thracian Cliffs, now being built-and one on the Crimean peninsula in Yalta.

But Bulgaria is only part of a growing golf industry in Eastern Europe. Countries such as Romania, Poland, the Ukraine and Russia have numerous golf projects under way.

Three Nicklaus Design courses are under construction in Russia. Others in the Moscow are being designed by U.S. architects Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest & Associates and Cal Olson.

"A tremendous amount of golf is being planned [in these countries] despite a very short season," Sartori said. "Eastern Europe is coming from almost a zero base for golf because the game had been prohibited there during the Socialist era, as it was associated with capitalism and western culture."

The growth of the game is being fueled by rising disposable income in Eastern Europe and a zest for new leisure pursuits. A quirky Web site called www. GolfUkraine.com, for example, has been campaigning for years for Ukraine to get its first course.

And because of their lack of familiarity with golf, many are bringing in experienced companies from the West to run their facilities. In Eastern Europe, operations firms like Troon Golf and IMG Golf Management are actively involved in signing on new clients.

"There is demand for higher quality residential products and the interest in picking up a new and trendy sport," Sartori said.

The growing interest in golf in these areas is a welcome sign of political and cultural changes in those nations.

"Since the fall of communism, there is a desire to identify with western culture and that means western golf," said Andreas Doring, head of golf operations for IMG Golf Management. "It's a sport that crosses boundaries. There's a lot of investment in real estate in those areas, and they're using golf to drive those developments. But the resorts have tennis and equestrian sports as well."

Sartori said financing for Eastern European projects comes from a variety of sources, including the Middle East. But most investors seem to be Irish and English companies. The majority of projects are joint ventures, with local governments investing in developments as well.

The owners of Air Sofia, based in Bulgaria, are building several resorts in that country, where 16 new courses could eventually be developed. Investors in BlackSeaRama include the president of the Bulgarian Golf Association and Landmark Property Management of Luxembourg, headed by international institutional investors. Landmark invests in projects in Central European countries that hope to join the European Union.

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