Teeing with the Pharaohs
An international golf tournament in Sharm El-Sheikh puts Egypt in the spotlight as a golfing destination. Dena Rashed
looks at what Egypt offers golf lovers
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Since the mid-1990s, a new generation of luxury golf resorts, with challenging fairways, hills, bunkers and artificial lakes on the greens, have sprung up throughout Egypt
Sigrid holds her club, knees together, feet apart, and swings. She hits the ball but misses the hole. Her husband Claus watches while contemplating the Florida-style layout of Sharm El-Sheikh's 18-hole Jolie Ville Golf Course, which boasts 16 lakes, vast greens, thousands of specimen trees and villas all along its perimeter.
The background, though, is not at all Florida: mountains fill the skyline, at their feet the desert. The course, designed by American John Sandford, has all a golf resort requires: good practice facilities, a luxurious club house and an easy walking course with variable tee boxes according to handicap.
Six years ago the scene was completely different. It was barren desert with no life. It was golf that took this desert by storm and transformed it into a green oasis. The former desert now attracts golf fans from all over the world -- Egyptian, foreign expatriates and tourists.
For that reason and for the first time, the Jolie Ville golf course was selected to host the Al-Ahram-Jolie Ville European Challenge Tournament from 22 to 25 April, while the Pro-Am was set to start on 21 April. About 156 golfers from all over the world are expected to take part in the tournament.
The Jolie Ville Mövenpick Golf Resort is only seven kilometres from Neama Bay, and five kilometres from Sharm El- Sheikh International Airport. The resort -- with 269 rooms, a conference centre, a health spa, four restaurants, a discotheque, three bars, tennis courts, a swimming pool and an aquapark -- has quickly established itself as a major attraction.
Annelies Wehrli from Switzerland has been playing golf for the past five years, during which time her choice of holiday destinations has changed.
"When my husband and I decide to go for a vacation, a country with golf courses is an asset, and that is why we chose to come to Sharm El-Sheikh," she said.
Sylvia Afaeth, a professional golfer from Germany, believes that vacationing in a country that can offer a variety of golf courses has become a necessity more than just an asset. And for her friend Maleasa Andrt, a golfer used to playing in Europe, "the greenery of the golf course surrounded by the desert is something new and fascinating."
If you are a beginner, a three-day course is available. It could then be followed by a second course that takes another three days. However, before starting your first game at the Mövenpick Golf Resort you have to pass a quick test.
"We do that for the safety of all players. A ball can go as fast as 186 kilometres per hour, so we have to make sure players are acquainted with the rules," said Atti Sayed, teaching professional at the resort.
After finishing your golfing Sharm El-Sheikh offers splendid opportunities for relaxation with many cafés, shopping malls and night-clubs located only 15 minutes away from the resort. Free shuttle buses are available for hotel residents every two hours to reach the city. However, should you choose to spend your vacation just relaxing in the golf resort, then gala events and cocktail parties can easily fill up your evenings.
Golf has not only flourished in Sharm El-Sheikh; the fashion has also spread all over the country. Since 1996 a new generation of courses has sprouted throughout Egypt. They are luxury resorts surrounded by deluxe villas and apartments. Nor are activities in these areas restricted to golf: they include tennis, squash, swimming, horse riding and other sports.
New 18-hole golf courses are situated in Cairo, Luxor, El- Gouna and Soma Bay on the Red Sea and Sharm El-Sheikh in South Sinai. There are also the old nine-hole courses at Mena House Oberoi Hotel and Al-Gezirah Sporting Club in Cairo and Alexandria Sporting Club in Alexandria.
You would do well to forget about the flat golf courses of yesterday. Today the trend is to offer challenging fairways, with hills and valleys, bumpers and artificial lakes on the greens. The resorts have been designed by international experts, including famous architects like Gene Bates from the United States -- who designed El-Gouna's resort on the Red Sea -- and golf champions like the South African Gary Player, one of the greatest golfers of all time -- who designed the Cascades Golf and Country Club at Soma Bay, also on the Red Sea.
Special turf has had to be imported for the courses. Tifdwart Bermuda, Kikuyu or Bermuda 419 are varieties that grow on sand and in heat and they have been planted at most of the new courses. The water used for irrigation is treated sewage water and the irrigation systems are computer controlled.
If you decide to spend your golf vacation in Cairo, the capital alone boasts seven golf courses, and players can choose between Katameya Heights, Dream Land, Mirage City, Golf City, Pyramids Golf and Country Club in addition to the courses at Al-Gezirah Sporting Club and the Mena House Oberoi Hotel.
Just 20 minutes from Cairo International Airport is the Katameya Heights Golf and Tennis Resort, a 400-acre complex with 280 villas and a 27-hole course. Katameya Heights, which opened in 1997, kick-started the revival of interest in golf after decades of decline that began with the end of British colonial rule. It was Katameya that paved the way for the new generation of golf courses.
As Ahmed Affifi, member of the Egyptian Golf Association and marketing manager of Katameya Heights Golf Resort said: "Every golf course has its own flavour. Katameya golf course, built on hills and designed by Eve Bureau, has managed to attract all kinds of golfers, Egyptians and foreigners as well."
The resort has a golf academy, a kids' area and a health spa. It also comprises a 50,000 square-foot club house with restaurants, lounges and bars in addition to a swimming pool and tennis courts. A pro-shop is also located at the resort for those who wish to do their golf shopping.
Katameya offers three different kinds of membership: a lifetime membership for Egyptians -- whether single or a family, an annual membership for non-Egyptians, and corporate memberships. Bookings can be made a year in advance.
Minutes away from Katameya and 15 minutes away from Cairo International Airport lies another exceptional golf course: Mirage City Golf Course in New Cairo. The 18-hole golf course is par 72, and covers 250 acres. The course includes deluxe villas and a JW Marriott Hotel with 428 rooms -- including 72 suites overlooking the golf course or the swimming pools -- and The Beach, a themed swimming facility. There is a wide variety of restaurants and bars serving Italian, Japanese, Middle Eastern and American food. Six tennis courts are also available. If you are a first-timer there are golf lessons, a swing analyser and a golf academy. Golf services include a pro-shop, rental equipment, power carts and a driving range.
Founder's Club membership is available to villa owners while President's Club membership is for golfers living outside. For businesses, a Corporate Club membership is valid for 10 years.
On the other side of the town, on the outskirts of Cairo in Sixth October City -- only eight kilometres away from the Pyramids -- lies a golf course that is part of Dream Land City. The city comprises a theme park, residential units, and an 18- hole, par 72 golf course.
Designed by the famous American architect Karl Litten, the 7,200-yard golf course is planted with fine, lush grass. It is surrounded by narrow fairways embracing seven artificial lakes. The sandpits are very challenging. The range, which is 350 yards long, is beautifully set at the starting point, with palm trees at the end of it. Hole one is close to hole nine; that way you can end where you started.
Staying at the Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort -- a five-star property affiliated to Dream Land City -- allows golfers a direct view of the golf course. The hotel has 114 rooms, a variety of food and beverage outlets, a conference room and recreational activities. For beginners, a golf academy offers special golf courses and tuition. A pro-shop, rental equipment and caddies are also available.
At the terrace of the Hilton, a group of Danish golfers were having lunch after finishing their morning game. Lisbeth Skaarup, who has been a golfer for three years, came to play golf in Egypt by coincidence. "The weather is great since the golf courses in Denmark are closed at that time of the year. Also, the quality of the course is very good," she said. Skaarup booked her vacation in Cairo through a golf travel agency in Denmark, one of the several travel agencies set up for golfers flourishing in Europe.
Most of the golf packages to Cairo include a one-week stay, of which four or five days are reserved for golf and one or two days for sightseeing. However as Skaarup remarked she wished she would have another day for sightseeing. Since her programme was so condensed, she believes Cairo needs more than just a day. However a nightlife, as she opined, is what the hotel is really missing. "After a tiring game of golf, you just need to enjoy some nightlife, but that is about 20 minutes from the centre of the city," she said.
For Mogens Nielsen who has been in the golf business for years, organising golf trips to several countries of the world, Egypt has made it onto his list of top golf destinations. "Egypt became one of our agency's priorities. It is very near to Europe, it provides warm weather when it is freezing in Europe, and most importantly it provides a mixture of golf and history," said Nielsen.
Hefny Higazi, general manager of Dream Land Golf and Tennis Resort emphasised the fact that the major attraction of Cairo lies in the fact that golf there is a mixture of golf and history. "We provide golfers with a 27-hole golf course which is only 10 minutes away from the Pyramids. This is a major attraction," he emphasised.
There are two kinds of membership at the Dream Land golf resort: the Gold and Silver memberships. The Gold members have free access to the green fee, the swimming pool, the gym and the sauna, while the Silver members have to pay for them in addition to paying for the electric carts and the range ball. Subscription could be for three, six or 12 months, including single, family, junior and child memberships.
The Pyramids Golf and Country Club on the Cairo- Alexandria Road offers golfers yet another chance to play on a different golf course in Cairo. Its 18-hole golf course is a par 72, with four tees. Facilities include a pro-shop, caddies, power carts, club rental and a driving range. For starters there is a golf academy that provides special golf lessons. The club has three restaurants and a swimming pool.
Although it is one of Cairo's older courses and it lacks the luxury the new courses have, the Mena House Oberoi nine- hole course has a significant advantage: it is the course nearest to the Pyramids of Giza, and golfers literally play at the foot of the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
Opposite to the course is the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, one of the old historical hotels in Egypt. The five-star hotel with 468 rooms includes conference centres, restaurants, a casino and tennis courts. Golf lessons and facilities are also available with a fine pro-shop. Annual membership is available, while daily visitors and tourists are also welcome to play.
Another old course, Al-Gezirah Sporting Club on Zamalek Island, had the first 18-hole course in the city. Now however it has become a nine-hole course, with a par 70 with double greens. It is not too easy to play because of a number of trees and dogs in the fairways. Only one hole includes water hazard. The club has a small cafeteria serving sandwiches and drinks. It offers annual memberships while tourist groups are welcome to play there.
The Mediterranean city of Alexandria also offers golfers a unique experience through the Sporting Club. The course is one of the oldest in Egypt as it was built in 1898. The nine-hole course with a par 70 and two tees is a flat course with tricky bunkers. It has a pro-shop, caddies, trolleys, driving range, club rental, and golf lessons. It also provides annual memberships and welcomes tourist groups.
Golf and history mix again in Luxor. So if you are looking for a special golf vacation where you could satisfy your interest in history and enjoy perfectly warm weather throughout winter, Luxor's Royal Valley Golf Club is the perfect spot for you to spend time-off. Created by the American architect Arthur Davis, this 18-hole, 72-par course is only 25 minutes away from Luxor International Airport. The course has a double-ended driving range with six target greens, one practice and putting green, one bunker and pitching practice green. A fully stocked pro-shop is also open to golfers, as well as a restaurant and a lounge. Lessons, clubs for rent and carts and mobile refreshment carts on the course are also available.
When azure water, sand beaches, perfect weather, unmatchable marine life and well-kept golf courses are combined in one location, then it is a golfer's paradise. For that reason the Red Sea golf resorts are a golfing option that just can't be missed. The Red Sea hosts two 18- hole golf courses: the Cascades Golf Club at Soma Bay and El-Gouna Golf Course in El-Gouna, 20 kliometres north Hurghada.
Cascades Golf Club at Soma Bay is 45 kilometres south of Hurghada. The resort is built on a peninsula surrounded by the desert and is located directly in front of 700 metres of beach-front property. Besides the sun, sand and sea, one can combine one's vacation at the Red Sea with the temples of Karnak and Luxor in Luxor City which lie only 240 kilometres away from the resort.
This 72-par course was designed by Gary Player to suit the skills of both amateurs and professionals. Sheraton Soma Bay provides a luxurious place to stay, comprising 277 double rooms, 21 suites in the main guest wings and 14 beach-front suites. A piano bar, a pool bar and lavish restaurants are all part of a relaxing resort. But the location is not just about golf: the exceptional marine life of the Red Sea creates the opportunity for many water activities such as Scuba diving and snorkelling, not to mention the deep sea fishing and windsurfing.
Built by Gene Bates, El-Gouna's 18-hole golf course is another exceptional golf course. The course is designed to suit both amateurs and professionals according to PGA standards. It includes an aqua driving range for 35 persons with target islands at a certain yardage, a putting green and a practice area for chipping and bunker shots all around the golf course. Its clubhouse was designed by US architect Michel Graves, and includes a pro-shop, a health club and dining facilities.
According to investors, the fact that there are so many golf courses in Egypt grants the country an important advantage over competitors. The courses' designs differ from one place to another, while the landscape and degree of difficulty of each course also vary. For that reason golfers are never satisfied with one golf course and like to try more than one.
"A professional golfer needs and enjoys playing in different golf courses with different designs. That has become a challenge on its own, and with the different golf courses now in Egypt, we provide that different experience to the golfer," said Kamal Okasha, managing director of Nile Travellers Club (NTC), a company specialised in golf tourism.
According to tourism experts, the Egyptian golf courses attract nearly 700 foreign golfers in addition to 4,000 Egyptians and foreign expatriates each year.
Okasha argues that despite the fact that the golf courses in Egypt are very well-designed by famous players or architects and are at the same time very well-maintained, "the competition is still very strong between Egypt and other countries in the region. Morocco and Tunisia, for example, have been in the golf business for many years and already have their clientele. Also Dubai has some high quality golf courses."
"But," he added, "Egypt is on the right track. We just need more golf courses to attract more golfers." He also emphasised the importance of marketing Egypt as a golf destination. "I believe that once golf fanatics learn of what Egypt has to offer they will come flocking here," he said.
Marketing is now the main concern of travel agencies and resorts dealing with golf. Most of them contribute to international tourism fairs such as the World Travel Market in London, the Berlin Travel fair and the Italian Travel Fair in Milan. Also, some of these resorts organise golf tournaments to try and attract as many golfers as possible.
The new vogue in Egyptian golf has recently prompted the Ministry of Tourism to promote golf as a new tourist product and include it in their marketing scheme. For that reason, a comprehensive booklet entitled "Egypt Golf" was published recently by the ministry in several different languages. The booklet includes comprehensive details about golf in Egypt, a note about the country's history and a guide to the most important golf courses from those scattered around Cairo to those in the Red Sea and South Sinai. Each course is covered in detail: how many fairways it has, whether it is open to members only and what kind of services are available. To make things easy, telephone numbers, Web sites, addresses and e-mails for each golf course are listed. The booklet is available in travel agencies dealing with golf and in the ministry's tourism offices abroad.
According to tourism experts, golf is one way to attract a certain kind of tourist. "Golf is an expensive game; it attracts a traveller who pays well and stays for a long time. Golfers are much higher-paying clients than the average traveller. They are people who look for and expect the best, and who are ready to pay for it," Okasha said.
For an overview of golf in Egypt and special golf holiday packages you can check: