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Turkey expands golf tourism despite environmental costs

New tourism investments in the 'rising star of golf' come with a high environmental and water security bill the country cannot afford
The cost of the manicured golf courses include the use of precious water resources and the deforestation of large swathes of land (Photo of golf in Antalya from Wikicommons)

ANTALYA, Turkey - Winter is Herbert’s favourite time to play golf in Antalya, Turkey’s golf capital situated on the sun-kissed Mediterranean coast. 

“The weather is still pleasant, the facilities are cheaper and it’s not very crowded,” he said. Herbert, a 67-year-old retired businessman and golf enthusiast hailing from Germany, has been coming to Turkey for golf holidays with his family for the last four years. He has been enjoying the positive developments in Turkey’s tourism industry, and believes the potential in Turkey is still largely untapped.

The bright winter sun shines on the impeccable green clipped lawn of the golf course, making affluent northern Europeans like Herbert feel blessed to have escaped winter at home. The spacious golf course that is decorated with fountains and artificial lakes feels worlds away from the heart of the capital city of Antalya, a hustling Mediterranean metropolis.

Like the Mediterranean winter sun, the future of golf in Turkey looks bright too. International business reports describe Turkey as the "the rising star of golf". A favourable climate and ongoing improvements in the tourism infrastructure have fostered one of the most desirable golf destinations in the world.

The golfing boom in Turkey comes at an environmental cost (Photo of golf in Antalya from Wikicommons)

A golf boom equals water loss

The country’s flattering status as "the rising star of golf" is a profitable one too. According to the Turkish Golf Federation, a golf tourist spends approximately 1100 euros on golfing holidays, nearly twice as much as the average tourist.

Turkey has been gradually taking advantage of the golf rush and since the early 2000s has been building golf courses and investing in tourism infrastructure. There are currently 18 golf courses in Turkey, most of which are in Antalya. However, the Ministry of Tourism recently announced plans to build 25 more golf courses in Antalya alone. 

With dozens of new golf facilities being planned and the country’s accelerating reputation in the sport, Turkey is likely to see a significant economic boost from the boom of this sport.

Yet despite the advantages golf is bringing, things might not seem as bright if one were to look at the other side of the coin. Building and maintaining golf courses requires massive amounts of water and Turkey is already experiencing sporadic water shortages. In fact, in the year 2030, 100 million of Turkey's citizens are expected to be suffering from a water shortage.

The Turkish Environmental Engineers Union (TEEU) estimates the water needs of the currently operating 18 golf courses to be dozens of times more than the combination of the needs for Istanbul and Ankara residents. Hence, the 25 new golf courses that are being planned would significantly deplete the availability of water.

“An 18-hole golf course uses 2500 cubic metres of water a day. This spending is irreversible,” said Baran Bozoglu, president of the TEEU.

“The availability of water resources in Turkey is very volatile and it’s distributed very unevenly among different regions. Antalya and the Turkish Mediterranean Coast are particularly vulnerable to the water shortages,” added Bozoglu.

He believes the economic gains from golf tourism should not be a priority. “Water is the source of life. Thus, any plan that is concerned with water management must be based on the basic needs of life.”

“Most of the water resources in Turkey are required for agriculture. The plan to build these golf courses might do significant damage to the agricultural communities in Turkey,” he added.

Farmers dig deep for water

Rural Turkey, where thousands of farmers have already been battling with severe water scarcity issues, lacks the crisp smell of freshly cut grass. Turkey uses over 70 percent in agricultural irrigation, and the use of non-renewable groundwater reserves puts future farmers and food production in the country at immense risk. 

Muzaffer Ozlav, a 54-year-old farmer from the Western Anatolian city of Eskisehir, is worried about the future of farming in Turkey due to the water scarcity issues he has been experiencing, especially in the last few years. He has lived in the same rural village all of his life, and has witnessed the groundwater levels shrink further every year.

“Thirty years ago, we used to dig only seven metres before finding water,” he explained. “Now we have to talk about wells that are 100, 200 or even 800 metres deep, depending on the location.”

Turkey’s rising water scarcity also creates new kinds of challenges and inequalities in society, especially among farmers who need the water most.

“The independent farmers cannot afford those wells. I would need to spend around 200,000 TL [$68,300] to construct wells like that,” said Ozlav.

“When the water is scarce, it is the industrialised and big-scale farms that are able to find solutions. But this means we are robbed of water too, and people have to dig deeper.”

“Climate change already introduces a lot of unpredictability and poses immense challenges for us farmers. But increasing water scarcity makes our jobs almost impossible,” he added.

The environmental damage that the golf courses inflict are not just limited to their contribution to the scarcity of water availability in Turkey. Since the mid-2000s, more than half a million trees have been cut in Antalya in order to develop the golf courses. The building of 25 new golf courses worry local residents in terms of the long-term environmental destruction that might occur.

Environmental destruction already palpable

Environmental activist Ali Ulvi Buyuknohutcu - who is also head of consumer rights at the Antalya City Council - has witnessed a devastating amount of environmental destruction in his own hometown in the last decade.

“When they started to build the golf facilities in the mid-2000s in an attempt to increase and diversify tourism revenues, thousands of hectares of forests were destroyed. These forests were home to endangered species indigenous to Antalya. At at time when species of tree like stone pine, white pine or pinus brutia should have been protected, they were instead cut down by their thousands.”  

The impact of deforestation in Antalya has been very visible (Photo courtesy of Buyuknohutcu)

New tourism facilities might arguably create new economic opportunities and jobs for Antalya residents, however, Buyuknohutcu does not believe that locals will benefit from the booming golf industry.

“There’s a very limited number of people in Turkey who can play golf and enjoy these facilities. Local people are robbed of their natural resources irreversibly for the enjoyment of affluent visitors,” he said.

“Golf means grass, and grass means water. But it doesn’t end there. Irrigation of golf courses causes the groundwater levels to rise. This isn’t suitable with the plants that grow naturally in the Mediterranean climate. Pine trees rot and die when the groundwater levels rise – if they are not cut already.”

“And it’s not just trees that exist in forests that are destroyed by the golf courses. With the trees gone, many animals, birds, bugs and bees disappear too and the local farmers depend on them. When there are no bees to pollinate their plants and orange trees, they have to buy expensive, imported fertilisers,” added Buyuknohutcu.

“Golf might be a lucrative tourism activity for Turkey,” said Buyuknohutcu and added, “But no matter how much money it might add to the country, nothing can compensate for the losses it causes.”