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The best of money, tourism and golf

Sunday March 4 2007

 

By MWANGI GITHAHU

In life, some people are surrounded by opportunities but don’t realise them. Others, like Tob Cohen, surrounded by the same opportunities, can instantly spot a niche and benefit from it.

Cohen first came to Kenya in 1987 as the youthful head of the local branch of the Dutch conglomerate, Philips. He had arrived here from a posting in Jamaica in the West Indies and, while he still has a special place in his heart for Jamaica, Kenya, her people and the country as a whole captured his heart, soul and mind. So much so that he refers to two Kenyan friends as his “brothers” and will soon be marrying the Kenyan object of his affection, Sarah.

The niche Tob Cohen identified was in the golfing lifestyle. Of course golf had long been played in Kenya and, in the late 1980s, the game was making a transition from a preserve of the seriously moneyed elite to one which the less wealthy and professionals also played.

Cohen figured out that golf was more than a game -- that it was indeed a lifestyle. Somewhere along this thought process, it occurred to him that while Kenya was already a favourite of tourists coming to see the wildlife, the pristine, white sandy beaches and the countryside, it could become a firm favourite of a special type of tourist.

This tourist appreciated the beaches and the national parks and game reserves, but was crazy about golf.

His big idea was to get golfers to come to Kenya on safaris of the sort they had never heard of before. Not just to see the amazing animals and the breath-taking landscape and the stunning beaches, but to play golf as they enjoyed the atmosphere provided by these.

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Thus in 1991, Tobs Kenya Golf Safaris was born. It was not until a while later that two other firms came into the same niche market. Only three such firms are in operation in Kenya.

By the time Cohen’s big idea was coming to fruition, it had become pretty obvious to him that Kenya had for the longest time been one of the world’s great “undiscovered” golfing destinations.

The pitch for the golfing safaris offered by Tob Cohen and others in the trade is that golf in Kenya offers the chance to relax and unwind in natural surroundings while participating in a highly competitive and skilled game.

Golf tourists are also lured by the promise of a diverse range of courses combined with “world class standards and service and widely available tee-times”.

Cohen told Lifestyle that the business of tee-times was a particular attraction to visiting golfers as most of them from Europe and North America faced rigid, inflexible tee-times.

Ninety-five per cent of Tob Cohen’s golf tourists come from Europe which is the main Kenyan source market for golfers. They usually book an average of between a week to 10 days or two weeks if they add the Coast to their itinerary.

The average age of the golfing guests has hovered around 50 years for some time, but Cohen notes that it is dropping.

“It is still mainly people whose children are grown and no longer at home,” he said, adding “they are usually business people or retired owners of businesses. Even for Europeans, this golf safari is considered a luxury.”

The minimum booking Cohen’s firm will accept is two people and the biggest group on their records was a team of 55 golfers who came on a golfing safari in 2001. “I am expecting a big group from France this year,” Cohen said, all the time bubbling with the enthusiasm and confidence that has brought him this measure of success.

Tob Cohen feels he has the right product and claims that all his tourists leave satisfied. He has seen a number of return visitors.

His passion for this corner of the tourism market is so big that he is a moving spirit behind the formation of the Kenya Golf Marketing Alliance (KGMA) which includes big players in the tourism business such as leading hotel firms, Kenya Airways and the Kenya Tourist Board.

The KGMA’s objectives are what were once Cohen’s solo aims -- to promote Kenya as a golf destination and to achieve a sizeable share of the world golf travel market, the fastest growing niche in the tourism market growing at a rate of 10 to 15 per cent a year.

Said Cohen as he pushed his big idea: “Currently the world has about 60 million golfers and this translates into a potential US$12 billion. Golf, on its own, represents the largest sports-related travel market.”

He believes that if Kenya got just one per cent of that market, it would mean an instant Sh10 billion in foreign exchange earnings and employment.

Touting the virtues of golf tourists over the ordinary tourist, Cohen pointed out that golfers spent about 50 per cent more than the average tourist.

He said that all golf tourists aim for “comfort and luxury, put little if any pressure on roads and national parks and buy everything they need in the pro shop at the golf course.”

Other big destinations for golf tourists around the world include: Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal in Europe, the USA — particularly Carolina, Florida and Arizona — Dubai, Thailand and Turkey as well as South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritius.

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