By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
Published: May 24, 2011
MEXICO CITY — One of Fidel Castro's first acts upon taking power was to
get rid of Cuba's golf courses, seeking to stamp out a sport he and
other socialist revolutionaries saw as the epitome of bourgeois excess.
Now, 50 years later, foreign developers say the Cuban government has
swung in nearly the opposite direction, giving preliminary approval in
recent weeks for four large luxury golf resorts on the island, the first
in an expected wave of more than a dozen that the government anticipates
will lure free-spending tourists to a nation hungry for cash.
The four initial projects total more than $1.5 billion, with the
government's cut of the profits about half. Plans for the developments
include residences that foreigners will be permitted to buy — a rare
opportunity from a government that all but banned private property in
its push for social equality.
Mr. Castro and his comrade in arms Che Guevara, who worked as a caddie
in his youth in Argentina, were photographed in fatigues hitting the
links decades ago, in what some have interpreted as an effort to mock
either the sport or the golf-loving president at the time of the
revolution, Dwight D. Eisenhower — or both.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who maintains close ties with Cuba,
has taken aim at the pastime in recent years as well, questioning why,
in the face of slums and housing shortages, courses should spread over
valuable land "just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit
bourgeois can go and play golf."
But Cuba's deteriorating economy and the rise in the sport's popularity,
particularly among big-spending travelers who expect to bring their
clubs wherever they go, have softened the government's view, investors
said. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but
Manuel Marrero, the tourism minister, told a conference in Europe this
month that the government anticipates going forward with joint ventures
to build 16 golf resorts in the near future.
For the past three years, Cuba's only 18-hole course, a government-owned
spread at the Varadero Beach resort area, has even hosted a tournament.
It has long ceased to be, its promoters argued, a rich man's game.
"We were told this foray is the top priority in foreign investment,"
said Graham Cooke, a Canadian golf course architect designing a $410
million project at Guardalavaca Beach, along the island's north coast
about 500 miles from Havana, for a consortium of Indians from Canada.
The company, Standing Feather International, says it signed a memorandum
of agreement with the Cuban government in late April and will be the
first to break ground, in September.
Andrew Macdonald, the chief executive of London-based Esencia Group,
which helps sponsor the golf tournament in Cuba and is planning a $300
million country club in Varadero, said, "This is a fundamental
development in having a more eclectic tourist sector."
The other developments are expected to include at least one of the three
proposed by Leisure Canada, a Vancouver-based firm that recently
announced a licensing agreement with the Professional Golfers
Association for its planned resorts in Cuba, and a resort being designed
by Foster & Partners of London.
The projects are primarily aimed at Canadian, European and Asian
tourists; Americans are not permitted to spend money on the island,
under the cold-war-era trade embargo, unless they have a license from
the Treasury Department.
Developers working on the new projects said they believed Cuba had a
dozen or so courses before the revolution, some of which were turned
into military bases. Cuba and foreign investors for years have talked
about building new golf resorts, but the proposals often butted against
revolutionary ideals and red tape. Several policy changes adopted at a
Communist Party congress in April, however, appear to have helped clear
the way, including one resolution specifically naming golf and marinas
as important assets in developing tourism and rescuing the sagging economy.
"Cuba saw the normal sun and salsa beach offerings and knew it was not
going to be sustainable," said Chris Nicholas, managing director of
Standing Feather, which negotiated for eight years with Cuba's state-run
tourism company. "They needed more facets of tourism to offer and
decided golf was an excellent way to go."
The developers said putting housing in the complexes was important to
make them more attractive to tourists and investors, and to increase
Still, John Kavulich, a senior adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and
Economic Council, said Cuba had a history of pulling back on perceived
big steps toward freer enterprise and might wrestle to explain how such
high-dollar compounds could coexist with often dilapidated housing for
"Will Cuba allow Cuban citizens to be members, to play?" he said. "How
will that work out? Allowing someone to work there and allowing someone
to prosper there is an immense deep ravine for the government."
But Mr. Macdonald said political issues were moot, given that Cuba
already had come to terms with several beach resorts near Havana that
generally attracted middle-class foreign travelers.
"It's not an issue for them," he said. "It's tourism. It's people coming
to visit the country."
If the projects are built as envisioned, the tourists will enjoy not
just new, state-of-the-art courses and the opportunity for a second home
in Cuba, but shopping malls, spas and other luxury perks. Standing
Feather, which calls its complex Estancias de Golf Loma Linda (Loma
Linda Golf Estates), promises 1,200 villas, bungalows, duplexes and
apartments set on 520 acres framed by mountains and beach.
The residences are expected to average $600,000, and rooms at the
170-room hotel the complex will include may go for about $200 a night, a
stark contrast in a nation where salaries average $20 a month.
Standing Feather said that to build a sense of community and provide the
creature comforts of home among its clientele, the complex will include
its own shopping center, selling North American products under relaxed
"It is in the area that Castro is from, in Holguin Province," added Mr.
Cooke, the golf course architect.