Build it and they will complain: Land-use issues resurface on Asian frontier, with local flavor

If you are a reasonably well-traveled golfer and have never, ever questioned the wisdom of certain of golf developments you’ve visited, well, time to check the old pulse. Even for those of us accustomed to think that at the very least a golf course is almost always a buffer against more insidious forms of development, there’s something worrisome about playing through clusters of houses without seeing a single kid on a swing, a guy mowing his lawn.

This was a fairly common scene well before the real estate crisis in the States and, no doubt, one of the reasons for it. For Americans, though, the golf course land-use debate has largely been tabled, as very few new golf courses are being built.

By contrast and consensus, the new locus of golf growth is Asia. And I mention the US experience with overbuilding to reinforce the notion that I’m not reflexively pro-development. However, my recent involvement in a media-fueled controversy over the construction of golf courses in Vietnam included a fascinating, distinctly local twist on the whole question of overall land use.

(Full disclosure: I work for Mandarin Media, which represents the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, and I wrote the initial draft of the following response to below-referenced piece in the International Herald Tribune.)

The experience also confounded my preconceived (if self-serving) notion that journalists are inherently more likely than, say, developers to employ an even-handed recitation of the facts. Reprinted below is a hyperlink to the original International Herald Tribune feature, which also appeared in The New York Times, and the response to it.


Did the International Herald Tribune get its
story straight about golf in Vietnam?

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (Oct. 21, 2009) — For a sport notable more for emotional restraint than for hysterics, it can seem ironic that golf, and golf-course development, can generate extremes like Tuesday’s feature in The International Herald Tribune titled “Golf Courses Now Grow in Vietnam’s Rice Fields.” Certainly the reporter, Seth Mydans, leaves no doubt that he views the building and operation of golf courses in Vietnam as an unequivocal evil.

So it’s instructive to recall that only last month The New York Times, the Tribune’s parent company, featured essentially the opposite viewpoint as its online “Idea of the Day.” That idea, first published in Newsweek, came from Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and lauded Vietnam’s initiative as a golf destination as equally unequivocal proof of political and economic progress and stability. A similarly positive accounting of Vietnam as a golf destination had appeared in the Times travel section the previous year.

In such an emotionally charged, all-or-nothing atmosphere, opinions tend to be rigid, “facts” subject to manipulation or outright fabrication. Some instances conspicuous in Tuesday’s piece include, briefly, the following:

• Land use. Indisputably an important issue, the article cites the loss of a million acres of land devoted to rice cultivation between 2000 and 2006. But during this period, only two golf courses were built, thus accounting for roughly .03 percent of the lost acreage. In any event, virtually none of the acreage occupies arable land.

“Our golf courses were not built on converted agricultural lands,” notes Baron Ah Moo, CEO of Indochina Land’s Hotels & Resorts division, “but rather land slated for other, higher density projects abandoned or sold to us directly from the provincial government, whose infrastructure requirement specifically included a golf course.”

• Environmental issues. The article chides golf courses for pollution. In fact, thanks to superintendents trained in agronomy, golf-course operation is green relative to most other land uses, a point recently highlighted in Vietnam News. Golf was also taken to task for water consumption, but rice is, of course, an immensely thirsty crop. According to a report by Dr. Shigetaka Taniyama, for the 2002 International Water Conference in Hanoi, a golf-course-sized (150 acres) rice paddy would require some 1.7 million tons of water.

• A question of proportion. The article actually undercounts the number of completed courses currently in Vietnam — there are 19, not 13, as the text states — but colossally overestimates the number in the pipeline with any chance of reaching fruition.

“Full-fledged golf destinations need a critical mass of courses to attract visitors,” notes Ah Moo. “We think double the number of courses in Vietnam that we now have would be a optimistic goal, but the idea of 200 courses, as the article suggests, is preposterous. California, the state that people usually liken to Vietnam in size, has more than 900 courses alone. There is simply no threat of the country being overrun by golf.”

• Golf and taxation. The article claims that golf is lightly taxed compared to other forms of development.

“Not true,” says Jeff Puchalski, CEO of golf club management and consulting firm FORE Golf Asia and advisor to the Vietnam Golf Association. “In fact, with the exception of a few commodities, such as cars and spirits, golf is the most heavily taxed product there is in Vietnam. Courses must pay a 20 percent special consumption tax and a 10 percent value added tax. By contrast, hotels and other tourism projects are subject only to the 10 percent VAT but pay just 5 percent because they also receive a 50 percent stimulus discount. Being taxed out of existence is a much more plausible problem than not carrying our share of the load.”

• For expats only. Though it’s true that an exact calculation of the number of Vietnamese golfers is problematic, it’s also true that the 5,000 cited in the article is plainly low. The Vietnam Golf Association pegs the number at roughly twice that. Participation by Vietnamese nationals at some venues, for example the recently opened  Montgomerie Links Vietnam, in Hoi An, accounts for “upwards of 50 percent” of rounds played, according to Jon Tomlinson, general manager. And at Ocean Dunes Golf Club, in Phan Thiet, some 15 to 20 percent of tee times go to “government officials who play free and at prime revenue times on Saturday and Sunday,” according to Kurt Greve, general manager. Golf is among the fastest-growing sports in the country.

• The human costs. The article quotes certain “experts” in assessing the negative effects of golf-course construction, but even non-experts will understand that the analysis doesn’t stand up to reason. For example, “a single course can cost the land of hundreds of farms, displacing as many as 3,000 people, sometimes devouring an entire commune.” This, again, ignores that golf courses occupy reclaimed land and not nearly enough of it to support such numbers.

Similarly, the relocation price cited in the article, $2 to $3 per square meter, is at least two-thirds less than the actual price and, again, is not for farmland.

“For reasons both ethical and purely practical, it makes sense to be good neighbors, in tune with the community,” said Tomlinson. . “And the people from the area that work for us confirm that this is indeed the case. They’re happy for the expanded opportunity, not resentful of some sort of land grab.”

Finally, the very vehemence of the article’s anti-golf sentiment suggests that maybe there is something that all parties can agree upon – namely, that the whole debate is about Vietnamese ethos generally, not just agriculture and the economy. Mydans expresses particular scorn for the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail — Vietnam’s “heroic wartime past redefined as a sales pitch” — the very thing that Haass defined as “the clearest evidence of how far things changed” regarding Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S. and the world at large.

Like all of Southeast Asia, the challenges facing Vietnam are such that golf will be neither the villain nor the hero in its future.

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