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A far way for a fairway

Forget the Alhambra. Forget the Prado. When Albert Dobbeleir visits Spain, he is interested in one thing. Golf.

"I've been here for a week, and every single day I played on a different course," Dobbeleir, a Belgian clothing manufacturer, said at the new Westin golf resort outside the Mediterranean town of Benidorm. He says he travels from Antwerp to Spain six times a year just to play.

"Back home it's 48 degrees," he said on a balmy November day, "but after a 21/2-hour flight, I'm here in the sun."

Dobbeleir is one of thousands of Northern Europeans who shuttle to Spain for golf weekends the way New Yorkers migrate to Boca Raton.

Spain is the Florida of Europe, where a polo-shirt-clad crowd can wield a 5-iron in winter on a celebrity-designed fairway or retire to a $500,000 villa by the ninth hole.

Since 1990, more than 200 championship-level courses have opened throughout the country, from the misty hills of Galicia to the marshlands of Cadiz and the rugged cliffs of Alicante, according to a study by Aymerich, a golf management consulting company based in Madrid.

Another 300 courses are planned across the country in the next decade. Should authorities give all of them the green light, despite severe water shortages and slowly mounting pressure from the environmental ministry, Spain would have among the highest concentrations in Europe, about the same as Sweden or Germany and only less than Britain, according to Aymerich.

This is good news for the estimated 500,000 golfers, mostly German, British and Scandinavian, who haul their clubs to Spain each year, said Peter Walton, chief executive of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.

Not everyone is thrilled. Environmentalists in Spain are bristling. They say a drought-prone country should not use its scarce water supply - even recycled water from nearby homes, which many developers say they use - to keep so many fairways green.

Straining resources

"In Malaga this summer, you couldn't put water in a private swimming pool, and there were restrictions on tap water, but they continued to irrigate private courses," said Guido Schmidt, in charge of water policy for the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

He views the proliferation of manicured greens as a symptom of a deeper problem: a construction boom that has seen an average of 600,000 homes built a year since 2003, mostly in the parched south.

In fact, fairways often form the centerpieces of these Florida-style communities of vacation villas - aggressively marketed in London, Amsterdam or Berlin.

"The golf brochures always claim they are in protected areas with a beautiful landscape, but if it is protected land, shouldn't it be used for activities compatible with nature?" Schmidt said.

Sand traps and bunkers are also sprouting up at luxurious spa hotels, some of them linked to the new developments. Each seems determined to outdo the last.

Original Roman columns, and a few replicas, dot the 18-hole golf course at the Hotel Villa Padierna, a Tuscan-themed resort run by Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 2003 near yacht-lined Marbella. A Roman-style amphitheater overlooks some of the greens, just outside the spa.

In Benidorm, Spain's quintessential package-tour playground on the Mediterranean, the Real de Faula Golf Resort and Spa, with both a Sheraton hotel and a Westin, mimics the look of a typical Mediterranean town. Its two 18-hole courses, designed by Jack Nicklaus, surround a jazz club, a restaurant complex and other buildings designed to look like churches and cloisters.

Farther south in Murcia, a citrus- and vegetable-growing region, the Spanish developer Polaris World is building a golf empire - 35,000 vacation homes, three hotels run by the InterContinental chain and a "Nicklaus Golf Trail," nine courses designed by Nicklaus or by his design firm within 15.5 miles - according to the deputy chief executive officer, Francisco Sardina.

A changing market

Perhaps the most unusual spot under way is Marina d'Or Golf, in the Mediterranean town of Oropesa del Mar, north of Valencia. It will have two courses designed by Greg Norman, one by Sergio Garcia, a ski slope, six themed hotels - including one built around an aquarium - and a plastic surgery clinic, representative Cristina Sayans said. "It will be just like Las Vegas."

Like many local politicians, Tomas Fabregat, a town councilman for Oropesa del Mar, says these places generate jobs and sell homes.

"It allows thousands of families to have work all year round," he said. The town has quadrupled in population to 10,000 in less than a decade, he said.

Spanish officials and hotel industry leaders also welcome these upscale resorts. They believe Spain can no longer compete with cheaper sun-and-surf destinations like Croatia and Morocco. The future, they say, is to forget sangria-guzzlers who shop for 10-euro flamenco dolls and to woo people willing to spend 60 to 200 euros a day ($78 to $262 at $1.31 to the euro) on a greens fee, or 2,000 euros ($2,260) for five days at a hotel with lessons from a pro. In crowded coastal towns many Spaniards say the resorts look positively outdoorsy compared with the Miami-skyline look that has been popular since the '70s. They view golfers as deliverance from rowdy spring-break-style vacationers.

"This is an oasis of peace, of repose," said Pedro Carreno, a 66-year-old retiree, as he inspected the veranda overlooking the fairway at the Westin resort in Benidorm.

Almudena Bilbao, a clerk at a Benidorm shop, is not impressed. "Here they're building golf courses, and we don't have a theater or a park for our kids."

Won't golfers bring more business?

"Those resort complexes have everything, so the people never leave," she said. "Someone who pays a fortune to stay there is never going to come to shop here."