China: Golf in Xinjiang

Jun 19, 2011
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The phenomenon of growing an elite sport in a poor province.

A short distance south of Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi there is a portion of beautiful land known as Nanshan, or “South Mountains”. For years tourist and locals have travelled away from the noisy, polluted city life seeking the peaceful scenery that Nanshan provides, but soon they will have an entirely different reason to visit: a new luxury golf course.

981 An empty golf course in Karamay, Xinjiang (Photo: Zara Arshad)

A growing golf market in Xinjiang?

Of course, very few people I met in Xinjiang know how to play golf – much less can afford to – but that’s beside the point. The worldwide image of golf as an elite, rich-man’s sport has somehow enticed developers in one of China’s poorer provinces to begin building golf courses.

It should be noted that golf won’t be the first sport to entertain visitors of Nanshan. As you can see from the picture, skiing has become quite popular among the Xinjiang middle class as well (note the ski lift). Ski resorts have popped up everywhere around Urumqi and a few other wealthier Xinjiang cities.

Skiing, however, is affordable. Golf is not. So the question remains: if you build it, will they come?

982 An oil-rigged golf course (Photo: Josh Summers)

Golfing in the middle of nowhere

Karamay is a small, young city by China standards (pop: 200,000, 50 yrs old). It is located in northern Xinjiang about four hours away from Urumqi and boasts one of the highest standards of living anywhere in China, thanks to the booming oil industry.

Part of the excess money that has poured into the city thanks to oil has been spent on a million-dollar city park,  incredible water attractions, and – now – a golf course. Every day people young and old flock to the park and every evening hundreds gather to watch the water and light show along the man-made river.

Not once in four years did I ever see anybody play on that golf course.

The course is beautiful, well-kept and dotted with lovely fake oil rigs. I was quite interested to play a round of golf there but unfortunately I could find no person to play with me. The cost was too high for my Chinese and Uyghur friends and they didn’t even know how to play.

The state of golf in China

Dan Washburn, a Shanghai-based writer, teamed up with photographer Ryan Pyle earlier this year for a Financial Times story about a secret new golf course in China’s Hainan province.

In the article Dan dives into the world of golf in China and how, despite a moratorium on golf course construction, developers are working to finish the largest collection of golf courses in the world. How then, can these courses in Hainan be built? How can Xinjiang be constructing new courses if it’s against the law? Dan’s answer:

There’s an answer to these questions, too, and it is also China. In the years since the government announced its supposed golf course moratorium, the number of courses has nearly trebled to an estimated 600 or so. In China, there is always a way.

Naturally all the money spent on golf raises concerns of corruption. Last week government officials in Wenzhou were given an ultimatum: either quit a new golf association or take part in a “self-criticism”. Needless to say, most of them chose the former.

983 A local golf advertisement

Why golf?

Despite the moratorium on course construction, despite the government frowning on golf association memberships, despite the few people in Xinjiang who can afford to play – construction of the Nanshan golf course continues.

But why?

An advertisement for golf in Xinjiang. Maybe it’s the internationally-promoted image of golf as representative of a developed country or city. Tourism literature like what you see on the left boasts high-class facilities available to businessmen and foreign visitors.

Maybe the upper-class Chinese really do enjoy golf and are a market ready to be tapped. Whatever the reason, it has the potential to further divide Xinjiang’s rich and poor in a way that can’t easily be overlooked.

Interesting how luxury golf courses are being built in an area that is receiving trillions of dollars in government aid, don’t you think?


Update 9/2: Apparently, Karamay and Urumqi aren’t the only two cities capitalizing on golf courses. Kashgar is getting into the trend as well.


This post was originally published on Far West China in August 2010.