Mission Hills: Playing golf for a better environmentChina’s first sustainable golf resorts
That maintaining golf courses causes harm to ecosystems the world over is nothing new: they deplete fresh water resources and traditionally require a deluge of chemicals like pesticides. What is new to the sport is a sustainable golf resort company in China which is pioneering sustainable tourism in the country. Read More
An unlikely contender for a pioneering role in Chinese sustainable tourism development has stepped up, proving that major players can also go green. While his father was arguably the man who brought golf to China, Mission Hills Ken Chu is the mastermind behind a plan to introduce sustainable tourism to the world’s most populous country.
One of the only things more impressive than China’s 1.38 billion population is the incredible emergence and growth of the Chinese middle class, which last October surged past the United States to become the biggest in the world — 109 million people possessing wealth between $US50,000 and $500,000. This leap in disposable income has been coupled with a corresponding increase in appetite for local and international tourism, one that is only set to grow, despite the decline in China’s GDP.
It is one of the first resort operators to ban shark fin in its restaurants, a renewable energy adopter for street lighting and solar-powered golf carts.
Against this backdrop, Mission Hills China — the sports and leisure powerhouse headed by Ken Chu — was named winner of the ‘Earth Changers’ category of the National Geographic Traveler World Legacy Awards at the ITB Berlin travel convention in March of this year.
What started as an integrated leisure resort company in 1992 has grown into the world’s largest golf club: Mission Hills Shenzhen. Since then, the company has led the charge in China’s rapid golf growth, and in 2010 opened Mission Hills Haikou, a massive, 10-course resort on volcanic Hainan Island.
Dozens of golf courses have been shut by the Chinese central government since 2015, due to their resource consumption in the face of a scarcity of water supplies and arable land. In contrast, Mission Hills builds on wasteland.
It is one of the first resort operators to ban shark fin in its restaurants, a renewable energy adopter for street lighting and solar-powered golf carts, and an advocate for the protection of natural and cultural heritage. Joe Dodgshun spoke to Ken Chu about how golf could become a leading light for sustainable tourism in China.
Some people might not associate golf resorts with the idea of sustainable tourism. What made Mission Hills want to be more than just a standard resort operator?
Sustainable tourism and environmental practices are still new concepts in China today, even though we have the world’s largest population and fastest growing middle class. Given the scale, it is our vision to set examples of sustainable best practices, especially in China, which does not have a history of sustainable practices. Our ‘golf and more’ leisure philosophy acts as the catalyst for the group’s sustainable tourism-related business expansion.
Mission Hills helped bring golf to China a few decades ago and the sport has boomed in popularity since. Whom are the golf resorts designed for?
In China, golf is a business language and a business network where you engage partners on the course for at least four hours. Mission Hills is diversifying the golf environment into a destination that is easily accessible, affordable and acceptable for all. With the introduction of many resort options and services at the complex, Mission Hills has become a fully-integrated destination where four generations can enjoy a memorable holiday together.
But is golf actually a sport for everyone, or more of an activity for the elites?
Some people still believe golf is an expensive game to play. In China, it is. That’s because 99% of the courses in China are membership based. And it will take time to change this. Golf has only been around in China for maybe 30 years now; it’s still in its infancy. In Scotland and the US, golf used to be a rich man’s game too. It took around a century to evolve. In China it won’t take a century for it to become more of a layman’s game because of the pace we’re growing at. It will become a more accessible game going forward.
The company has restored industrial wasteland and created wildlife protected areas in the process of building its resorts — can you explain a little about how this works?
We always take sustainability into consideration during the construction period. After all the initial greening and rehabilitation work to restore degraded industrial lands has been completed, we continue to improve our woodland habitats by planting hundreds of trees every year. In Mission Hills Hainan we added soil on top of bare rock and sand to provide optimal living conditions for trees and to allow the natural recolonisation of vegetation, retained twenty thousand existing trees, and planted another thirty thousand trees all as part of our nature restoration efforts. Mission Hills Shenzhen has also planted 280,000 square metres of trees with over 100 indigenous species.
Golf courses need a lot of space and their construction sometimes requires displacing people or destroying nature. How were you able to build such huge resorts while at the same time adhering to sustainability standards?
The town of Guangdong, for example, home to our Mission Hills Guangdong resort, used to be a garbage dumpsite. And in Haikou, no one lived on Hainan Island where we built the golf course. The reason we were able to build 10 courses in 18 months – a year-and-a-half – is because nobody had to vacate their homes. There were no farmers, there were no villagers living there. It was pure lava bed, lava rock. That’s why nobody had lived in Haikou for 10,000 years, nobody had done any business there, there was no infrastructure whatsoever. Palm Springs in California in the US is a good example of a similar development built on what used to be desert. Once they devised an irrigation system, they turned the desert into a green tourism destination. That is the model that I promote and endorse. Through sustainable development, you can help the country grow its GDP. You can turn a rural area into a green destination – that’s what we’re doing here.
Palm Springs is an interesting example, given California’s water shortages of the last few years. How does Mission Hills deal with the need to sustainably use water in its resorts, especially with the Chinese central government’s closure of many golf courses for reasons of saving water and protecting land?
Mission Hills treats waste water through sewage treatment plants and constructed wetlands, then uses this for golf course irrigation, along with collected and natural rainwater. We also adopted advanced irrigation systems with centralised computer controls to optimise water use efficiency. Water sources within the development are built in an enclosed environment, so that all used water is treated and reused. 90,000 square meters of reservoirs and water tanks are built as water catchments and this waterscape is used to nurture the plantation and the courses. This significantly reduces the overall water usage in the whole development and a minimum saving of 3.5 million cubic metres of tap water consumption is achieved, which is equivalent to the water consumption of 250,000 families in a month.
How have resort guests reacted to Mission Hills’ environmental stance? Has this in fact proved to be a financially viable selling point?
We published the Green Guide manual which is available in our hotel rooms. Quite a lot of guests also ask for a copy of the book. The principals of Mission Hill’s sustainable tourism are profit, people and planet. I think the three elements always work together.
What is Mission Hills’ next big sustainable development project, and where do you hope to see the company in future?
We want to continue to play the role of a super-connector, bringing more international brands and experiences to China, from food and beverage, entertainment and retail to health and wellness. Mission Hills will continue to open new markets and explore novelty projects to offer visitors a more diverse and vibrant experience.
This shows we are on the right path and has inspired us to do even more.
Finally, what has it meant to win the National Geographic Traveler World Legacy Award?
Mission Hills is recognised as a Chinese pioneer in supporting and promoting sustainable development, education and awareness – especially among Chinese travellers – of the importance of protecting natural resources and demonstrating that sustainability and a successful business can go hand in hand. We are honoured to have been recognised by a world-renowned organisation like National Geographic. This shows we are on the right path and has inspired us to do even more.