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Golf thrives, but on unregulated course

By Bai Ping | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-06 07:11

If you haven't heard of Zhangjiajie, think about Hollywood blockbuster Avatar that reportedly drew inspiration from the beautiful, rugged mountainous area in southern China for its special-effect illusions in the "Pandora" jungle.

Coincidentally, Zhangjiajie in Hunan province that attracts millions of middle-class tourists every year is also embroiled in a conflict between modern man and nature, where local officials and developers are defying a national ban on building new golf courses in order to protect farmland and conserve water. Their first unauthorized 18-hole course, designed by an American architect and named a sports ecological park as a disguise, is already up and running. Investors are pushing forward another two despite political pressures and opposition from local people.

Yet Zhangjiajie is just one of the salient examples of a policy conundrum that has been troubling the public, government and developers for years.

Industry figures show that the number of golf courses in China has soared to about 600 from 170 in 2004, when the government imposed a moratorium on building new courses. A total of 39 new "illegal" courses opened last year, albeit catering only to members on a trial basis as they tried to skirt around the ban.

The army of Chinese golfers, defined as those who have played at least one round in the past 12 months, has swollen to more than 1 million and keeps increasing. The rising popularity of golf is palpable with long queues at driving ranges becoming more common and games slowing to a snail's pace on popular courses, especially on weekends.

However, while many professionals are taking to golf, some still perceive it as an elitist pastime of the moneyed class. While courses are generally built in beautiful, green surroundings, they are often regarded as a ruse for housing developers and a potential threat to the natural environment. In answer to such concerns, the government responded with harsh measures, including the ban on new courses and hefty tax on golf equipment as luxuries.

But now golf fans and opponents both are mocking the policies, for they have largely been ignored by local officials and found to be self-contradictory sometimes.

Most provinces and cities have been adamant in their quest to have more golf courses to attract more investment and tourists. Top government agencies, too, differ in their views on the issue. While those in charge of land, housing and the environment refuse to budge from their tough stance against new courses, the pro-golf camp comprising culture, sports and tourism departments encourages the development of courses and considers the curbs too rigid and unrealistic.

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