Cuba: let a hundred golf courses bloom
August 12, 2011 5:49 pm by Ron Buchanan
The developers of what will be the Cuban Revolution's first private golf
and residential complex are claiming a hole in one.
Sceptics have long questioned the Cuban government's reluctance to grant
full property rights to foreigners who invest in real estate. But all
these doubts have been quashed, said Chris Nicholas, managing director
of Ottawa-based Standing Feather International, which is due to sign on
a golf and residential development in eastern Cuba with the Cuban state
Standing Feather had been assuming that the homes in its Loma Linda Golf
Estates project would be granted 99-year leases to the foreign owners,
already a big breakthrough for a government that espouses communism.
But now the property rights are unfettered. "The government has assured
us that the homes in our project will be granted property in
perpetuity," says Nicholas.
Not all of Cuba's competitors in the sunshine real-estate market can say
the same. Mexico, for example restricts foreign ownership of real estate
on its coasts; in practice, ownership is exercised by a trust fund,
adding to the cost and red tape of any transaction.
Including Loma Linda, about four golf and related residential
developments are on the drawing board for Cuba, with the state-owned
Palmares company as joint-venture partner in each of them. When fully
built-out, Loma Linda will represent an investment of $455 million,
Together, industry sources say, all four projects are likely to involve
more than $2bn. They represent part, says Nicholas, of a complete change
of the economic environment for Cuba.
For the first time since the early years of the 1959 Revolution, Cubans
are now going to be able to buy and sell their own homes. Private
enterprise is beginning to blossom, though still on a relatively small
But the government has much bigger ideas. These include the development
of a deep-water port and industrial complex at Mariel, scene of the
historic 1980 boat-lift when thousands of refugees fled to the US.
Mariel, near Havana, will be foreign-managed with thousands of hectares
for industrial development in a free-zone complex. All over the island,
privately owned apartment complexes are to be built for ownership or
rental by foreigners.
"It all means a massive change of Cuba's economic model," says Nicholas.
A change, however, that could generate internal resistance from
supporters of a very different model, hostile to foreign investment and
private ownership. Not to mention likely resistance to the removal of
payroll padding that has been the norm of state enterprises.
Palmares, the state company that is partnering the golf developments,
will have its own budget. It can decide on who and when to hire and
fire, and make its own investments. Just like the state oil companies of
Norway and Brazil, leaving the government only to impose taxes and
regulation. So says Nicholas.
If it works, the "bourgeois game" once berated by Hugo Chávez, the
Venezuelan president and Cuba's closest ally, could breath new life into
the island's economy.
The only existing 18-hole course in Cuba is state-owned and is in the
beach resort of Varadero about 85 miles from Havana. Others were
bulldozed in the early years of the Revolution, despite Che Guevara's
interest in the game, documented at this photo by the late Hungarian
photographer Alberto Korda: (foto)
The government's revival of interest in the sport began in about 1995-96
in a drive to offer more variety for foreign tourists sated by sun and
salsa. But the Eureka! moment came when officials realised that golf
alone would not be profitable. Following the well-worn track of
developments all over the rest of the world, golf and real estate had to
go hand in hand.
In the long term, the planners aims to have 16 golf and residential
developments. Such numbers will probably have to wait for a political
rapprochement with the US, however. No US companies are permitted by
Washington to invest in golf or anything else in Cuba.
The current golf and residential projects are all led by Canadian,
British and Spanish investors.
Loma Linda is under starter's orders to be the first golf course to be
built. Its location is in Holguín province on the east of the island;
the others are on the west.
In the Varadero corridor, the Carbonera Club is a venture of Esencia
Hotels & Resorts, a British-owned company that has been working for
seven years in Cuba where it already has what is rated as the country's
leading boutique hotel.
One and possibly two more are to be developed by Spanish hotel groups in
Pinar del Río, where what is rated as the world's finest tobacco is
grown. One of them is being promoted by Barcelona-based La Playa Golf &
Resorts. Leisure Canada has a project at Jibacoa just east of Havana.
Will they all make it to the 18th hole? Who can tell? And golf can be an
exasperating game. As the late wayward genius of the sport, Severiano
Ballesteros once said: "I'd like to see the fairways more narrow. Then
everyone would have to play from the rough, not just me." Just a little
bit like Cuba itself.