13 May 2013 Last updated at 09:38 GMT
Cuba golf project gets green light
Sarah Rainsford By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Carbonera, Cuba
Five decades after Fidel Castro ordered Cuba’s golf courses to be closed
down because he considered them “elitist”, the island’s communist
government has approved the construction of a luxury golf resort,
complete with an 18-hole course.
The $350m (£227m) Carbonera Club proposed by British firm Esencia is the
first of a dozen similar initiatives that have long been under
The move is a sign of the changing times here, as the government seeks
new revenue sources to fund its socialist revolution.
“It will be a major complement to the tourist offering of [the resort
town of] Varadero and the start of a whole new policy to increase the
presence of golf in Cuba,” Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told the BBC
during a visit to Varadero.
He confirmed that a formal deal had been reached for a joint venture
between Esencia and the Cuban government to develop the Carbonera
resort, a short distance along the coast.
“We’ve been working on this for seven years, step by step, so we’re very
excited it’s finally going to happen,” Esencia’s CEO Andrew McDonald
said on a tour of the 170-hectare (420-acre) site.
Mr McDonald said he expected building work to begin next year on a
design which would transform the area.
As well as the golf course, the plans include the construction of an
exclusive, gated community of some 650 apartments and villas.
There will also be a hotel and a country club, complete with tennis
courts, spa and a yacht club.
And Carbonera is not the only project in the pipeline. A second golf
project, with Chinese investment, is expected to be approved by the end
of this year.
Other resorts will then be rolled out gradually across the island with
Spanish, Vietnamese and Russian funding.
And it is not just golf that is the novelty here.
Foreigners will be able to buy property on the developments, the first
time that has been allowed anywhere in Cuba apart from a short-lived
experiment in the 1990s.
“People retiring in Canada and Europe often look for a second home,”
says Gabriel Alvarez, the Cuban official charged with developing the new
“Cuba has all the conditions to be an option for them: safety, nature,
culture. So why not come here?”, he asks.
The luxury developments will remain, for now, the only place foreigners
can buy in Cuba. Early figures suggest high demand for a market that has
been off-limits for decades.
Theplan is to turn the island into a golfing destination to rival nearby
“Golfers are renowned for travelling to new places; it’s a multi-billion
dollar industry,” says Mr McDonald.
“I think Cuba will fit very well into that jigsaw, and be very popular,”
But for that to become reality, the island needs more courses.
Currently, there is just one 18-hole course in Cuba, at the Varadero
The club opened as tourism to Cuba took off in the 1990s, and some 200
rounds are played there each day.
“There’s definitely scope for more golf here,” said Canadian Daryl Giles
during a recent tournament there.
“You go to Florida and there’s lots of choice. Here there’s just the
one,” he said.
With more courses, “you could have a helluva good time here,” he added.
But it has taken Cuba a long time to come round to the idea.
In pre-Communist times, there were at least seven golf courses on the
island, frequented mainly by wealthy residents and US visitors. locals
Even Fidel Castro famously played a round in Havana once, taking on Che
Guevara dressed in military fatigues.
But he was clearly not a convert, ordering Cuba’s courses be put to less
Today, one of them lies abandoned just outside Havana; another became a
special forces training ground and a third forms the rolling lawns of a
city arts school.
But pragmatism has finally overcoming lingering resistance to reversing
Attempts to drill for oil and bring economic independence to Cuba have
come up dry and the death of the island’s key financial backer,
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, has made the future more uncertain.
So once unthinkable things are happening here. Tourism is now the second
biggest source of income on an island once closed to the outside world.
Last year, 2.8 million people visited Cuba, mostly opting for
all-inclusive hotel deals along palm-lined golden beaches.
But figures suggest golf tourists spend four times more than pure
sun-seekers, and Cuba wants to tap into that potential.
The Carbonera Club deal also suggests other foreign investment could
pick up pace now .
“I think there’s more openness to bringing people like us in. As long as
Cubans are in charge of the speed of the process, then anything is
possible,” he sys.
As for golf, Cuba is keen to re-style the game as a democratic sport,
pointing out that the sport has been included in the next Olympic Games.
“Of course it’s not for all Cubans at this moment,” admits Enrique
Nunez, owner of a successful Havana restaurant and recent golf convert.
A round costs five times the average monthly state wage here.
But there is already talk of creating a golf federation for locals,
taking advantage of the new tourist facilities.
“I think golf could have a good future here. We love baseball, and the
swing is similar,” Mr Nunez suggests.
Even though the sport was banned for so long, “we could be naturals,” he