Nicaragua sets tee time for golf tourism

TOLA—One of the world’s top golf-course designers thinks Nicaragua has all the right ingredients to become the next great golf destination, rivaling Hawaii, South Africa and Costa Rica.

The man Golf World Magazine named “the hottest architect in golf” is so sure about Nicaragua’s future that he’s building the first house on the 18-hole golf course that he was hired to develop at Guacalito de la Isla, the $250 million tourism development going up on Nicaragua’s forested southern Pacific coastline in Tola.

“This will be a benchmark for the traveling golfer,” David McLay Kidd told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent interview. “There is no way that this won’t rival the best that Costa Rica or Hawaii has to offer.”

By the time the golf course opens next year, Kidd says Nicaragua will already have its pin on the world golf map.

“This will achieve expectations,” the Scottish course architect said. “This is going to be to the same standard of anything I have ever done anywhere else in the world.”

Playing for par, a golfer hits one off the tee at one of the first holes to be completed at Guacalito (photo/ Tim Rogers)

That’s saying something, considering Kidd’s portfolio. Since designing his first course at the age of 27, Kidd has built a dozen of the top courses in the world, from links in Scotland, Ireland and England, to courses in California, Hawaii and South Africa. In addition to his new project in Nicaragua, Kidd is also building courses in Mexico, Portugal, Morocco and on the private Fiji Island of Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian billionaire who owns Red Bull.

The biggest plume in Kidd’s golfing cap is the Castle Course at the legendary St. Andrews Links, the birthplace of golf.

Nicaragua, he says, will be on par with everything he’s done so far. The Guacalito course has the latest irrigation systems and “the latest and greatest grasses” imported from the United States.

But the course in Tola will have something the other courses around the world don’t: the Nicaragua encanto factor.

“Golfers who are used to what I have done before maybe are thinking, ‘Nicaragua? What should I expect?’ But they are not going to be disappointed,” he said.

Kidd says he, too, didn’t know what to expect when he first crossed the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua. He said he was naively worried about “guys with AK-47s and civil war.”

“But then I thought, ‘You dumbass, there is nothing like that here; the place is full of surf bums’.”

“Nobody knows what Nicaragua has to offer,” he says. “People outside of Nicaragua think about its political past, so this development has an amazing opportunity to showcase what Nicaragua has.”

Kidd says he fell in love with Nicaragua after discovering a country that is surprisingly safe and friendly, with fantastic weather, verdant nature, unspoiled views and a cost of living that allows him to live beyond his means. And that’s the experience he’s trying to replicate in his golf course—an 18-hole adventurous romp through nature with a 5-iron, a straw hat and a silly shirt.

“The golf course is coming out spectacularly well,” he says. “It’s a soft, gentle golf course that seamlessly fits into this landscape. We are not trying to be harsh and dominate nature, we are trying to rest easy with her; nothing garish: no big fountains, no waterfalls, just very soft and simple. It should suit the eye.”

The golf course, Kidd says, will not be “Florida fake,” rather Nicaragua real.

“I want something that explores the landscape with golf as the excuse,” Kidd says. “It is a huge joy to do that on such a diverse piece of land, from the 18th green on the other side of the beach to the 16th green on a cliff top. We are really getting to explore this property.”

Only in Nicaragua

Kidd says there are few places left on earth where he could do something like he’s doing in Nicaragua.

“If this were in the U.S., there would already be houses all over the cliffs and foothills and the golf course would be one or two kilometers inland, halfway up a mountain or stuck in a floodplain,” Kidd said. “Anywhere else, this piece of land would already be overdeveloped, and it would have happened 50 years ago.”

Kidd says he was also told specifically to protect all the trees and natural contours of the land, allowing him to be creative and adventurous with the course, while celebrating the length and breadth of Mother Nature’s finest handiwork.

“The mandate that I was given by (project owner) don Carlos (Pellas) is that he loves this property and he wanted to hire someone who would respect and love it as he did,” Kidd says. “He told me, You maintain the giant trees. Do everything you can to minimize the impact on nature in both the design and structure of the course.”

The experience of building the course, he says, is almost Zen-like, rolling and flowing the bends, dips and turns of nature as they come.

Playing the course will also be a uniquely Nicaraguan experience, he says.

“It’s like barefoot golf; it’s not stuffy ankle socks and shorts-to-knees. It’s relaxed, the course is soft and gentle and wide. A good golfer will still have a challenge but a crappy golfer will still have fun,” he said.

A boom for golf & tourism

The Guacalito course will be good for golf and Nicaragua tourism in general, Kidd predicts. A high-end tourism offering will help establish the country as a mainstream tourism destination and bring more money into the country, he said.

Exploring the property at Guacalito (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“The richest tourists are golfers,” Kidd says. “If you look at the statistics, golfers spend more money to indulge in their sport than any other tourist, bar none.

“How do you get that guy to understand Nicaragua? This golf course is going to help him do that. He is going to play 18 holes here, he is going to see a big boa slide through the grass, the howler monkeys jump through the trees, and he is going to go home with an entirely different image of what Nicaragua is,” he says.

The course will also have a spillover effect on other new and existing courses in the area, including the course at Iguana, the 9-hole course at Milagro del Mar Golf Club and the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature course scheduled to open at the end of 2014 at Seaside Mariana.

“If we can combine two, three, or four golf courses along the coast so golfers can experience a first-class golf tour, starting north and going south, that is going to create an incredible opportunity for the Nicaraguan tourism industry to expand and thrive,” says Roger Keeling, President of TKG, the majority owner of Milagro del Mar Golf Club (formerly Gran Pacifica Golf Club).

Kidd notes that golfers want to play more than one course during a vacation to an exotic land. So the more quality courses there are along the coastline, the better Nicaragua’s chances are of becoming known as a new golf destination.

“Nobody here wants to prevent competition to this course,” Kidd says. “Guacalito needs to have competitors and it needs to have great golf as competitors too. We are not scared of it. I would hope that all my competitors in the golf-design business come to Nicaragua and build great golf courses and I hope that they can do something as good as we have done.”

And there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen, Kidd says.

“This country is astonishing and people are going to figure it out.”

  • Brian Nelson

    There is also a coastal golf course just under construction at Montecristo Beach and Golf Resort. Designed by Mike Young, the front nine is suppose to be open in late January 2013. This resort is in the same area as Gran Pacifica, an hour or so from Managua.

  • Gerd Schnepel

    Another blind man. “Kidd says he fell in love with Nicaragua after discovering a country that is surprisingly safe and friendly, with fantastic weather, verdant nature, unspoiled views and a cost of living that allows him to live beyond his means.”

    Dry rivers, stony canyons, cows everywhere in extensive cattle ranching, the forests will be cut off all in 15 yers, the weather is changing, climate change hits Nicaragua, one of the most vulnerable countries to it, say the scientists. And ask the population: 98% do not live beyond their means.

    • david

      waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

  • Gerd Schnepel

    ah, I forgot to mention the health advantages for the golfers: nearly all meat, chicken, fruits and vegetables produced here are highly polluted with hormones, antibiotics etc. For example, a vet. professor told me when cows are treated with medicine, no milk producer cares about the time limit for sale. Vegetables the same: spraying (very often forbidden stuff) in the morning and harvesting a couple of hours later. As former agriculture minister don Tuto said, when asked about agrochemicals in our meals: “Life is full of risks.” Bon apétit!

  • Capitan Zavala

    To: Mr. Schnepel, are you sure you are talking about Nicaragua?, because, it looks to me you are talking about Costa Rica.

    • Rita Lugo

      The very same mistake some Somocistas made in 1979 and left only after Tacho’s jets roared in Las Mercedes for Guatemala and Florida. It’s either denial, complacency, partners in crime or just plain stupidity….

    • Gerd Schnepel

      Dear Captain, of course I am sure. I live here since 1982. I do not mix up Nicaragua, the second poorest country of Latino América y el Caribe with those ticos, who believe themselves being Swiss…

      I did not get the irony of your question. Normally I am not so slow on ironic remarks, but in this case???

  • Pedro Arauz

    “It would be nice if dictatorships would work” I used to tell my friend Anastacio Somoza in 1975 at a party in Montelimar.
    And he would laugh the night out drinking and applauding at the Marimba from Masaya.
    Latter he would approach me to state ” Dictatorships only work when they have the power for real”. He was right, he lost his job not because of the opposition but for being to soft on a few idiots who gave him the wrong advise. Among them Cornelio Hueck who at the time owned what today is called Guacalito. Thing is….Cornelio never legally owned that land so don’t be supprised of the day when some esqueleto comes out of the closet claiming ownership of the Guacalito project. With Chavez kicking the bucket soon, Ortega will finally realized he never had the power and probably he also realizes he was no more than a low life squander f whatever.
    Reading the local press, you may get a glimpse of what’s coming. Specially after Ortega we may get a truly right wing down to earth dictatorship and the Pellas family has always been a Conservative lot- not the best of friends.
    This is the way Nicaragua works….
    From today’s press:
    Carlos Antonio Holmann Holmann denunció ser víctima de invasión e intento de despojo de valiosas propiedades ubicadas en San Juan del Sur, donde tiene su casa y varios apartamentos que renta a turistas, donde además hay una sucursal bancaria.

    • Flex

      About Holmann problems ?? that is a personal problem, you will understand it if you ever get a divorce.
      Now she needs a nest for her & her new “querido”

  • Gerd Schnepel

    Do we agree that this golf site is completely unnecessary for Nicaragua ? Like Pellas’ booze and ethanol …

    • Flex

      To Gerd; The only thing that keeps Nicaragua calm now, is because “booze” are cheap and you can get them in any “pulperia” (& cheap $$) with-out the booze we’ll have more problems.
      About Golf, yes we can do with out it (it is to HOT anyway)

  • http://playaroca.com No Basura

    WoW Gerd,
    What a negative response to a very upbeat article. Being mentioned in the Same breath as Hawaii, Costa Rica, South Africa’s golf world, Florida and California and St. Andrews, Jack Nicklaus, etc. are all bonafide key words for successful tourism. If you ever noticed, employment comes with tourism, and as the article points out, golfers spend MORE than anyone. We have a superior climate that if golfers find it a perfect place, then all others follow. 98% CAN”T live beyond their means because they have NO MEANS to do so. I have a small hotel in northern Nicaragua (Playa Roca Beach Hotel, Las Penitas-Leon playaroca.com) and at this moment employing 17 local Nicaraguans that would not have a job. Until tourists find their way further north, golf will only be a “furture” endeavor. When golf “hits” northern Nicaragua, you know you have a major tourist money making, employment producing area. Name me a “hot” golfing spot in the world and you will see world class tourist destinations and massive employment opportunities from hotel operators and restaurants to all the vendors and support suppliers. Synergy is the key word and golf is the catalyst.
    I was raised in California and Hawaii, and I can tell you the economic booms that comes with the golfing communities that “make” it. Nicaragua is unique, it is ripe for International acclaim as a destiny for tourists from many areas, from golfers to eco-adventurer types. Surfing and fishing are world class and I’ll put my beach in front of any I’ve ever seen, and I do know what works and what doesn’t, been there, done that.
    Don’t put Nicaragua down, but see it’s ingredients as a barometer of future economic growth.

    • http://Facebook Marilyn Joyce

      Well said!!!

      • Joseph M

        I am not afraid. It looks and sounds like a wonderful place, heaven on earth. And from the little experience I have had, the women are quite smart, and some of the prettiest women on the earth. Maybe the prettiest :) I think so!

        I am not afraid!

        Marilyn…take me you gorgeous thing. Let’s go. :)

  • http://Facebook Marilyn Joyce

    Don’t be afraid to isit Nicaragua. It’s truly a beautiful place! Too bad it gets lots of negativeness that scares away turism!

  • http://Facebook Marilyn Joyce

    Mr Schnepel,
    Can you be more negative? I can see that there are more people that see positive things about Nicaragua,than negative people like you!

  • Joe Average

    Despite Schnepel’s claims of “vegetables being sprayed hours before being picked” (which may or may not be true, depending on region and farmer) is no more a common practice here in Nicaragua, than in any other country in the world. IN FACT, many fruits eaten in the U.S, for example, come DIRECTLY from countries such as Nicaragua (Bananas, Cocunuts, some Mangos, etc.) Now you tell me who gets the better produce, the person living in Nicaragua that buys their fruit from the market, where FRESH produce comes in NEW every single day, or the American/Canadian/European who has to wait 3 weeks to eat it, at a MUCH higher price. (By the way, if fruit/veggies have to be transported and therefor must have a “shelf life” of 3 weeks, the amount of pesticides and other preservatives used on it will always be much, much higher.)

  • Johnnygron

    Lived in Nicaragua 15 years and left when the FSLN took power in 79, what a lost and a change !
    The country has gone back to be the 2nd poorest country in Latin America behind Haiti.
    Have gone back several times and have seen some progress back to normal business relations, safety is not an issue, lack of education is !
    What Mr. Pellas is hoping to accomplish is amazing:
    Job creations and professional tourism training are WINNERS.
    Just look at Mexico and the great job done as “el turista es nuestro amigo” and this corresponds to NATIONAL and International visitors.
    Golf is a Great asset, and Golfers are BIG spenders, from Hotels , caddies, food , beverages , parties , and all these items moves the Economy.
    Let’s be very clear , I dont think the mentality nor the goals of the Pellas Vision is to mantain Nicaragua as it stands as a “Quinto Mundo” country , on the contrary his goal is to raise the levels of living ,specially on the region to a more up to date ,humane and dignified level than unfortunately the rest of the Country.

    I wish you the Biggest success on your enterprise !