Golf in Tunisia, back on track.
Tunisia is recognised as the country where the Arab spring developed and from where it was copied by other countries in Northern Africa. The result of the Tunisian Arab Spring was that their dictatorial regime, headed up by the then President Ben Ali, was overturned and the country embraced their new and a more open and democratic destination. Tunisia has always been a holiday destination for many Europeans looking for sun, sea and sand but none of the tourists really noticed the undemocratic environment the tourism industry had to work within while enclosed in their holiday bubble.
Golf has been part of that tourism offering for close to 30 years now and with over 250,000 golf rounds being played on the limited number of golf courses, a significant contribution to the national product. Golf in Tunisia originally dates back to 1927 when the Carthage Golf Club was founded. Still in existence, the club has not moved with the times and is now confined to be a ‘cosy’ members club for the people from the capital Tunis.
Golf becomes more interesting when you head further South. In between the capital Tunis and El Kantaoui, there are a couple of very good golf courses to sample. The Tunisian idea of developing the golf industry is to concentrate on some of the already know beach tourism hubs and build golf courses to complement that offering.
During the first week of May, 26 European Golf Journalist were invited to discover what Tunisia had to offer as a golf destination. Journalists from all over Europe, most of whom had never been to Tunisia, especially for golf, were all pleasantly surprised by what they were presented. We all touched down at Tunis Carthage Airport having been taken care of by Tunis Air who fly to most capital cities in Europe and have a refreshing policy with regards to the transportation of golf bags.
The furthest South on our trip, the El Kantaoui Golf Club in Sousse offers two 18-hole courses. The Sea and Panorama Course are two contrasting layouts and have hosted their fair share of European tour events, in fact, the Sea course hosted the first European tour event outside Europe back in 1982. Both offer easy and varied holiday golf at a reasonable budget. You will come off the course with a good feeling as the courses are not that difficult and a lot of golfers will score well on them. The facility could do with a little bit of TLC, which is basically a bit of extra attention and a few licks of paint which will make a world of difference. The one real negative were the tee boxes which need a lot more than TLC, they basically need redoing.
Moving back North towards Tunis, the coastal and already well established resort of Hammamet is home to two golf clubs; Yasmine Valley (18 holes) and Golf Citrus (45 holes). Yasmine Valley is a real championship layout with its current 18 holes covering 6062 meters for a par of 72. Works had started on a Jack Nicklaus designed course next to the existing course but was put on hold for the revolution. A date has not been set to complete the Nicklaus course but the management hopes to have the course open for play by 2014. This will make a significant and positive contribution to the golf industry in Tunisia in general but mainly the the Hammamet region. Golf Citrus is just across from Yasmine Valley and offers 36 full holes and 9 short holes. Ronald Fream had 173 hectares of slightly undulating and forested land to work with and created two contrasting courses. Named the La Foret and Les Oliviers course, the Foret one being the tightest and more difficult of the two. Both rounds on Yasmine Valley and the Golf Citrus were played in very sunny but also windy conditions which made it difficult to judge the course on its playability under normal conditions. The greens on Yasmine Valley were lightning fast and during the years, some greens have shifted a bit making some of the slopes too severe. The greens on Citrus were a bit kinder for the mere mortal golfer. These are definitely two courses I would come back and play. Both clubs have all the facilities to make you feel welcome and caddies are available as well. In many cases, the caddies are very knowledgeable and will help you get around with more confidence. Having 54 holes of championship golf of such a diversity adjacent to each other and within 5 minutes from the beach and the different hotels is certainly a plus.
Both Sousse as Hammamet offer a lot more than just golf courses. The local Medinah (market) and Ribat or Kasbah (fortress) are well worth a visit. Well preserved and with commercial activity dating back hundreds of years, be it that the goods offered have changed, it is a good distraction from the golf and beach activities. Our group was well taken care of by Golf Protec Service who arrange transfers to and from the airport, hotels and golf courses.
Tunisia has always been a prosperous and historic area. Many of Europe’s famous have spent time, either on holiday or some a bit more permanent, in Tunisia. With a new and democratic elected government in place, most ministers of which have spent some time in jail under the previous regime, Tunisia has a breath of fresh air to it and is surprisingly modern and sophisticated. This is very much notable at the Residence Golf Resort on the outskirts of Tunis. A Robert Trent Jones II design of 6,451 mtrs with a Par of 72, the club could have its place in any golf destination in the world. Sitting adjacent to a salt water lagoon, just a par 5 away from the beach, this area of natural beauty has been converted into a challenging golf layout that will test your skill. Don’t let the beautiful surroundings and the sound of the many migrating birds distract you from the task at hand. With the abundance of water and with an added touch of wind, this course will make sure you stay alert.
With courses like the ones described above there is no doubt that Tunisia will lure many golfers away from the more traditional golf destinations. Its trump cards are the year round good weather, its currency which will offer both Euro as Sterling golfers good value for money and the culture and sophistication of the destination itself. The golf courses, their management and the tourism partners will do everything in their power to make you feel welcome, which in itself is a nice distraction from the more established and saturated destinations where sometimes that customer service sentiment has all but disappeared.
When in Tunis, don’t forget to visit the historic site of Carthage, a major urban centre that has existed for nearly 3,000 years. The ancient city once had 37 kilometers of walls surrounding it, longer than the length of any comparable city. The city was destroyed by the Roman empire in 146 BC. Near Carthage, visit the dating back from the 13th century blue and white cliff top village of Sidi Bou Said with its cafes and restaurants overlooking the gulf of Tunisia. With its white walls (against the heat) and blue windows and doors (against the insects), Sidi Bou Said remains a popular get away for Tunis’ population.
At the end of a fantastic week, all EGTMA members closed with a farewell dinner, offered by the ONTT, the Tunisian Tourism Organisation and attended by the new minster for Tourism Mr. Fakhfakh himself. He addressed the media in saying that Tourism is a great and valuable source of income and golfers are generally recognised as being among the most generous of tourists. That’s why the current government will do all within its power and budgets to promote Tunisia as a golf destination. Tunisia will also be the fore runner in Northern Africa with regards to online connectivity with many of its courses already available for online tee time bookings both for individual golfers and travel companies. All this was obviously welcomed by the attending industry partners and a message the assembled media will take with them to their respective countries informing their readers about the fact that Tunisia is back on track!
Golf El Kantoaui - www.portelkantaoui.com.tn
Yasmine Valley - www.golfyasmine.com
Golf Citrus - www.golfcitrus.com
The Residence - www.the residence.com
Riu Imperial Marhaba 5* - www.imperial-marhaba.tn
Sentido Phenicia Hotel 5* - www.sentidohotels.com/phenicia
Sindbad 5*- www.sindbadhotel.com
The Residence 5* (Leading Hotels of the World) - www.theresidence.com
Regency Hotel 5* - www.regencytunis.com
Transfers: Golf Protec Service - www.golfprotec.com
Air travel: Tunis Air - www.tunisair.com
For more information about tourism in Tunisia in general, visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk
Words: Jo Maes, President of the EGTMA.