Golf’s opportunities in the Balkans

Golf’s opportunities in the Balkans
By AML

Howard Swan explains why golf development has been so slow and sporadic in the south-east of Europe, and expresses his hope that things may soon change.

I have been fortunate over the last fifteen years to spend time in South Central Europe (as the locals  prefer to call it, rather than ‘former Yugoslavia’ or the Balkans).

Whatever its name, it is a beautiful part of the world with a coastline to die for: over 4000 kilometres, stretching from the top of the Adriatic and the Italian border at Trieste to the Montenegran and eventually Albanian and Greek frontiers to the south. The coast becomes more still more spectacular the further south one goes, mountainous and rocky right to the sea, and yet further north in Istria and in Slovenia it is gently rolling and relatively verdant.

Throughout there is wonderful cultural heritage, influenced greatly by Italian history and possession: cities such as Koper, Portoroz, Porec, Rovinj, Pula, Zadar and Split. And the jewel that is Dubrovnik is the icing on the cake.

Offshore lie some 1200 islands and in the hinterland are found the region’s capitals: for Slovenia the beautiful Ljubljana, for Croatia the classic architecture of Zagreb, for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the stunning Sarajevo, which has recovered from its war-torn past. It is amazing to think so few years separate us from the terrible conflicts of the Balkan Wars. Yet only five years before that, in 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympic Games.

Golf has some history in the region. Beautiful Bled, surrounded by the massive Julian Alps, has 27 holes, eighteen of which were laid out between the First and Second World Wars. Although nine were lost, nine were kept alive in Tito’s time and only in the fifties did Donald Harradine restore Bled to eighteen holes. I am fortunate to have spent some long and pleasurable days in the resort, renovating the courses further to a masterplan which will eventually see 45 holes on the land, with a further 18 elsewhere in the town.

Lipica, in the west of the country, is also an old nine hole layout set in a park most famous for its horses and its equestrian connection with Vienna.

But Croatia has the oldest and arguably most beautiful of historic courses. Some have disappeared to make way for other things – the oldest, Opatija, near Rijeka, for a tennis centre, Maximir in Zagreb for a zoo and public park, in Split to oblivion. Yet on Brijuni, the largest of an archipelago of islands off the Istrian coast sits a course. In the twenties, it was a European pioneer in resort development, with hotels, villas, gardens, tennis, polo, horse racing and golf. Its inspiration came from Austria and Hungary (a national from the latter is believed to have designed the golf course) and it became in the twenties and thirties a hedonistic paradise. From what I have gleaned from books and old photos, it must have been quite a place with Europe’s elite and their American friends glittering in splendour.

Originally an eighteen hole course, albeit with browns and natural grass fairways when mother nature occasionally helped (there was no artificial irrigation), Brijuni was a beautiful layout taking advantage of its Adriatic terrain, varied topography and forced carries over the sea.

With changes in political atmosphere, the new elite saw no place for the game, and golf at Brijuni went by the wayside. The archipelago became the fortress home of President Tito, and for twenty years golf was no more. It was not until the early nineties, in fact during the War, that some young, brave pioneers sailed to the island and recovered a course of nine holes not quite like the original, but at least a place where you could play. Today Brijuni has eighteen(ish) holes laid out without any chance of modern maintenance – no water, little equipment – but it represents the region’s oldest and, in my view, by a wide mile, most stunningly beautiful golf experience.

To the north, Slovenia has three new courses, including the spectacular Otocec and the nine hole Trnovo Golf Centre in the centre of Ljubljana, built on a reclaimed rubbish tip and operated on a public basis with tremendous results. Elsewhere are ten or so more courses to service a population of players increasing towards 10,000.

In Croatia is nothing like that. In the fifteen years I have been travelling there, only three courses have been built (plus one of only three holes), despite a Government financed strategy for golf development that was originally undertaken about twelve years ago and ending up in the criminal court because of an alleged fraud. Lots of projects have been mooted, but virtually nothing has happened. Complications over land ownership, government procedures in changing land use and ill perceived land values have created problems for would-be developers.

Five years ago at KPMG’s Golf Business Forum, Croatia was named by delegates as Europe’s next hotspot. But the image generated by these early developments, including allegations of corruption, fraud and money laundering left the industry with a tarnished reputation. Elitist, exclusive and expensive are regular sentiments expressed in government circles, and from the general population who see golf as irrelevant to their lives.

But some of us are trying to recover the situation in the region and give golf a better face, environmentally (it is considered destructive to nature), socially (it is considered to be non-inclusive) and financially (it is considered to be a loss-maker) and gain some credibility in the eyes of government agencies as well as potential players.

What is needed is better understanding which can only be achieved by better information and better education accompanied by openness and transparency.

With the great help of the British Foreign Office, Britain’s embassies in both Ljubljana and Zagreb and their commercial sections, we will endeavour to provide that by staging a Development Summit this summer. The opportunity for the region remains sizeable if we can cut through those image problems, procedure problems and scepticism. These are beautiful countries which need to have the advantage of our great game.

Howard Swan is principal of Swan Golf Designs, based in the UK, and has worked around the world.

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