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International golf tours check out MB

Chitaranjan Bakhshi had never been to Myrtle Beach before, but not only does he want to come back, he also wants to send many more golfers from India to vacation here.

Bakhshi's company, pashIndia, sells golf packages to Indians who travel around the world with their families to play golf. He's one of more than 50 golf tour operators who visited the Grand Strand last week at the midyear convention of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.

"I want to go back and promote the World Am," he said of one of the major golf events on the Grand Strand. "It's a great destination. ... Good value for money, great golf."

The association's visit was a big win for the area golf industry because its tour operators control a large chunk of the overseas golf packages - about 80 percent, according to the association's figures.

International visitors, who make up a small percentage of the Myrtle Beach market, tend to stay longer and spend more than U.S. visitors, golf tourism officials say. Around 50,000 foreigners come to South Carolina's coast every year, said Gary Edwards, executive director of marketing group Coastal South Carolina USA.

The golf tour operators say they have to see destinations, play the courses, to get a feel for the product they're offering.

Participants last week stayed at The Marina Inn, one of the most luxurious along the Grand Strand; ate at restaurants such as Waterscapes, Wahoo's and Umi Pacific Grille; and played courses such as True Blue, Willbrook, Heritage and Grande Dunes. The group also spent a couple of days in the Charleston area.

On the final day of their Myrtle Beach visit, the group drank cocktails at The Ocean Club overlooking the beach and mingled with the state's top tourism leaders, including Chad Prosser, head of the state's tourism department, and Bill Golden, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a golf marketing organization.

Fred Bickmore, director of golf operations for U.K.-based letsgo2golf, said a business acquaintance first took him to play golf in Myrtle Beach 20 years ago, and he's been sending British golfers here ever since. These days, though, Myrtle Beach has much more to offer, with a wider range of hotels and more upscale products, he said.

"This is really what a lot of our people are looking for," he said. "As far as we're concerned, the place is still cheap."

A lack of direct flights to Myrtle Beach isn't as big of a problem for the international visitor as it is for the domestic market, tour organizers said.

Most people don't come halfway across the world for a weekend getaway. So while a direct flight would be nice, it's not essential to the international golfer's schedule.

The farther golfers travel, the more likely they are to turn to a golf tour operator, much as they would a travel agent, to find out about where to go, association president Peter Walton said. In turn, the operators need to experience the destination to know which ones their clients will like.

"There's no substitution for actually going and playing," he said.

"They can't just look at a picture of a golf course to see how it plays."

Watch the tour operators mingle and hear Gary Edwards of Coastal South Carolina USA talk about international visitors: