Building The New Links

Sixteen kilometers north of Aberdeen, the pristine beaches are barren and the dune grass blows silently in the North Sea wind. But if Donald Trump gets his way, this area will soon be thick with golfers. Three years ago, the American real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star began looking for the ideal setting to build a world-class golf resort, and settled on this prime land in Aberdeenshire. The £1 billion complex will have two courses designed by top golf-course architect Martin Hawtree, a luxury 450-room hotel with spectacular sea views, a spa, high-end boutiques, gourmet restaurants, 950 vacation homes and the one thing no project by this paragon of self-promotion can go without: his name.

The Trump International Golf Links is not yet a done deal. It still needs final permission; in November, local councilors narrowly rejected Trump's plan, fearing their neighborhood would be overrun by tourists. The decision—expected to come as early as July—now rests with the Scottish government. But if it is approved, it stands to dramatically transform this northeast corner of Scotland, which got rich on oil and successfully lured business travelers. Now it hopes to attract those tourists interested in things other than oil. As Neil Hobday, the project director, puts it, "There is no question that Trump Links will put this region on the map for tourism."

Aberdeen City and Shire (as the region is called by locals) has been on the energy world's map since oil was first discovered in the North Sea in 1969. Since then, the oil industry has brought £200 billion into the local economy and currently employs 130,000 across Scotland—40,000 in Aberdeen alone. The region is the most productive economy in Scotland and one of the most productive in Britain as a whole. "We are the jewel in the crown of Scotland," says Rita Stephen, the development manager for the Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum. For the past two years, the area's business tourism has grown, due largely to the high price of oil; last year the city outperformed the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of per capita hotel occupancy yields.

Now the region is trying to boost its recreational tourism, too. The oil industry has only an estimated three or four decades of productivity left, so officials are looking for long-term ways to sustain the local economy. "It has been the declared aim in Aberdeen to diversify away from oil and gas, and leisure tourism is one of the most obvious ways to [branch out]," says Hobday. "The perception has always been [Aberdeen] was a Monday-through-Friday place for oil execs to visit." For that reason, the region has failed to attract many of the 16 million tourists who flood Scotland each year. According to statistics from the tourist agency VisitScotland, only 250,000 overseas visitors came to northeastern Scotland in 2006, spending £92 million; by comparison, 1.3 million visited Edinburgh and spent £462 million.

Those who do come find plenty to enjoy. Aberdeenshire has the largest numbers of castles per capita of any region in Britain, and the royal family has been summering at Balmoral, in Royal Deeside, since Prince Albert purchased the castle for Queen Victoria in the 19th century. There are surprisingly busy ski resorts, good spots for grouse shooting and fast-flowing rivers for fly-fishing. Films like "Local Hero"—which first charmed audiences 25 years ago with the tale of how a sleepy fishing village on the North Sea looked to become rich off oil—have made villages like Pennan, where the movie was filmed, part of the tourist trail.

The trick is to lure new visitors who may be reluctant to make the long haul for low-key diversions. "We do not have a Loch Ness monster, we do not have an Edinburgh Castle," says Stephen. "But we have the golf tour, the whisky tour, the castle tour, and you can create that buzz improving on what you have already got." One deterrent for luxury tourists has been a lack of high-end accommodations. The only posh place to stay in the area is the five-star Marcliffe Hotel and Spa, set on 11 acres of wooded lands. It offers guests sumptuous spa facilities and fishing and stalking opportunities, and has a private cellar of 400 wines and 100 malt whiskies. "The thing that sometimes knocks us back is our hotel accommodation because we have not had a lot of it," says Ian Dunlop, the area director for VisitScotland.

More hotels are on the way—usually attached to golf courses. In addition to Trump's colossal development, other projects under consideration include a new £40 million complex on the Ury Estate in Stonehaven that will include a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, a luxury hotel, an equestrian center and a shooting range. Scottish golfing great Paul Lawrie is also hoping to get in on the links action; councilors last month backed his £115 million proposal for a golf development in a former Roman Catholic seminary, which will include a hotel and a championship course. "We will never be a cheap destination, but we are a good value," says Dunlop. "We target the slightly more discerning visitor [rather] than your average run-of-the-mill Scottish tourist."

Still, as economic salvation, tourism has its limits. Alexander Kemp, a professor at the University of Aberdeen Business School, warns that the region should not pin all its hopes on a single strategy. "It can only be one element because tourism is seasonal, whereas oil is all-year-round, 24 hours a day and 365 days per year," he says. Lucky for Donald Trump, plenty of hard-core golfers approach their sport with the same kind of year-round commitment.