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Golf in Xinjiang, China | Elite Sport in a Poor Province

April 25 | No Comments

As fun as the game is to play, golf is viewed across the globe as an elite sport that sucks up a lot of natural resources and is useful only to the rich. So why is golf growing in China’s western Xinjiang province, one of the poorest in all the country?

Growing sport of golf in China

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 traveled away from the noisy, polluted city life seeking the peaceful scenery that Nanshan provides. They can picnic, hike, bicycle and now…

…play golf in China at Xinjiang’s new luxury course.

Growing Golf Market in Xinjiang

Of course, very few people I met in Xinjiang know how to play golf – much less can afford to play.

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 in Xinjiang has become quite popular among the 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?

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Golfing in the Middle of Nowhere

Karamay is a small, young city by China standards (pop: 200,000, 60 yrs old).

It is located in northern Xinjiang about 4 hours away from Urumqi and boasts one of the highest standards of living anywhere in China thanks to the booming oil industry.

A golf course in Karamay, Xinjiang
An empty golf course in Karamay, Xinjiang

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.

As far as the park is concerned, every day hundreds of people young and old visit the park and flocks 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.

A fake oil rig on the Karamay golf course in Xinjiang, China

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 (paid firewall…sorry)

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.

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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.

Years ago, government officials in Wenzhou were given an ultimatum: either quit a new golf association or take part in a “self-criticism” – the Chinese way of saying “be publicly humiliated”.

Needless to say, most of them chose the former.

Why Golf in China

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 new golf courses continues in China.

But why?

An advertisement for golf in Xinjiang

It could be a number of different things.

  • Maybe it’s the internationally-promoted image of golf as representative of a developed country or city. Tourism literature like what you see above 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: Apparently, Karamay and Urumqi aren’t the only two cities capitalizing on golf courses. Kashgar is getting a golf course as well.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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