We’ve known for a while that Cuba has been luring foreign investors for the building of new golf courses across its archipelago. Over the last couple of years or so, we’ve heard several rumours and official declarations from a variety of foreign investor groups setting their eyes on building new golf courses in Cuba, a particularly lucrative tourism and leisure area where the island is currently severely lacking.
As of today Cuba has only one 18-hole championship golf course in Varadero, one that despite being ideally located on Cuba’s premier beach resort and thus being incredibly scenic, is nearly a century old and doesn’t comply with USGA (United States Golf Association) standards. New golf projects aim to forever change the Cuban golf course landscape, dotting the island with sprawling new state-of-the-art golf courses (complete with adjacent luxury hotel complexes) giving golf players more choice than ever when it comes to enjoying their favourite sport during relaxing Cuba holidays.
We’ve also known that these new projects and their investors have been mulling over the specifics for a while, not having materialised yet due to a mix of local government delays when it comes to granting final permission to lay the groundwork and lack of funding. In fact, some golf development projects in Cuba seem to have died out along the way, with the joint venture between Vietnamese group HUD (Housing and Urban Development Corporation) and Cuba’s Palmares SA Group, being just one of the examples. After striking and signing a deal which they made public in January 2010, the project never took off, no one’s sure why. We do know that once the few we present here do happen, and some are speculating it will be very soon, they will forever change the landscape of island’s golfing action.
With golf tourism in Cuba currently attracting an increasing number of Canadian, European and Chinese visitors, it’s only a matter of time before U.S. visitors are drawn to its spanking new (soon-to-be-built) green lawns. With the easing of embargo rules by Obama’s administration, more and more U.S. keen golfers are eyeing Cuba while U.S. investors whet their appetite for a golfing future in their next door neighbour.
As of now U.S. travellers are not permitted to travel to Cuba for tourism and leisure purposes but with Obama laying the groundwork for the full lifting of the embargo and Hillary Clinton promising to follow through if she is elected U.S. President in the coming weeks, it sure looks as if the embargo law has its days numbered. That is, of course, unless Trump is elected President and chooses to revert all of Obama’s policy changes towards Cuba, which, could unravel a series of political disasters we don’t even want to contemplate, for both Cuba, and more importantly the world and the U.S. itself.
But, I digress, getting back to Cuba’s up-and-coming golf courses, the future looks promising indeed. These new projects will be done with or without U.S. backing as the investor groups are from Spain, China and the U.K. And they ain’t going nowhere.
Will Cuba be able to eventually steal the Dominican Republic’s golden crown as the Caribbean’s number one golf destination? Only time will tell once the new golf projects do materialise, only then the battle grounds will have been set and the served. Until that happens, we give you the details on the golf course developments already being built in the island.
Where will we find Cuba’s new golf courses?
The next question naturally leads us to where in Cuba will these shiny new golf courses be located, along with their planned nearby luxury resorts and hotels. For the time being, there are five golf projects that look pretty solid, and by that, we mean they are not tentative bids from companies looking at different possibilities or exploring options. These are either signed off deals good to go or awaiting signing before the end of year. While some of these are already being built the others only await final paperwork signing to break ground and prepare the soil. Although they appear as five different golf projects, some of them include the building of more than one golf course. Here we list them all according to location.
In Matanzas – a British-backed project
The first of these has been in the news radar for quite some time. We were among the first to voice the UK company’s plans to build a golf course in Cuba back in June 2015. Back in 2014 an investing company under the name Empresa Mixta Carbonera S.A. was created for this sole purpose, with mixed capital from the Cuban government’s Palmares S.A. group and British group, Esencia Hotels and Resorts (the UK’s leading investing company in Cuban development), although now it seems to have been passed down to London and Regional, a privately-owned UK company. Over the last couple of years, the project has been slowly materialising and developing, and even though it even has a dedicated website (thecarboneraclub.com) no details have been unveiled on when it will be completed. Some guidance, however, has been provided as to where they are with the project right now.
So far, we do now that engineering and geological studies are being currently carried out, along with other investigations to ensure the project’s sustainability and minimum impact to the local environment. The use of eco-friendly resources will be at the heart of this modern tourism enclave, which will also include the construction of an artificial beach in a coastal area, according to a revealing statement from Jorge Luis Hernandez, director of Cuban engineering and architecture company EMPAI (Empresa de Proyectos de Arquitectura e Ingenieria).
Geared towards international tourism and with a budget of $350 million Cuban Convertible Pesos, (CUC) the new Carbonera golf club will be part of a larger tourism complex occupying an area of 170 hectares, which will comprise a luxury boutique hotel offering 135 luxury rooms and a spa, as well as a Beach & Watersport Club, a Tennis Club and Yacht Club. It will also comprise private villas with one to four-bedroom apartments and Conran Residences plus a commercial centre. At the heart of it all, will be an 18-hole championship golf course, which will be associated to the nearby Varadero Golf Club next to the legendary Xanadu Mansion.
So far, out of all five confirmed new golf resorts in Cuba, this is the one that seems at its most advanced stage, as Managing Director for London and Regional, Desmond Taljaard recently revealed to Skift:
"We aim to break ground at the end of 2016 with marketing to begin in 2017, and the first phase completed by 2020. This first phase will include 200 residences, the hotel and the beach lagoon."
It will be the first luxury resort complex of its kind in Cuba, located on the outskirts of Matanzas, not too far from Varadero’s postcard-perfect beach stretches and its flagship golf course, the only one in existence in all of Cuba so far. Located at approximately 100 km north of Havana, perhaps the development’s biggest novelty feature is the fact that foreigners will be allowed to buy their own beachfront property in Cuba for the first time in over 50 years.
In and around Havana - a Cuban affair with Spanish flair and Chinese accent
Cuba’s north-western capital city and its surroundings have been the chosen location for two of the so-far five announced golf projects, while a third one is planned for the island’s westernmost province of Pinar del Rio. While one of these projects will be partly financed by Chinese investors, the other two involve financing from still-to-be-named Spanish companies with keen interest in developing even more golf resort complexes around Cuba.
Bellomonte, Playas del Este (Havana’s eastern beaches)
The first of these is the second of all five new golf courses to have received full approval from both parties involved. It’s the result of combined efforts between China and Cuba, with the Asian giant betting big on a mega project that will include not only a premium championship golf course, but also luxury hotels and high-end residential and commercial properties. A total of $462 million US Dollars has been poured into the budget to make this mega-dream a reality.
Participating investors are Cubagolf and Beijing Enterprise Holdings Limited, and there’s rumours they won’t stop at just one golf course, with the possibility of more to come around Cuba, although until now this talk of more is just pure speculation. For the time being the one project agreed on and taking off over the next few months will be located in Bellomonte, on a plot of land 30 kilometres east of Havana, in an area close to Havana’s already popular Playas del Este (Eastern Beaches) like Guanabo and Tarara, both of which the government has also opened up to foreign investors. The new Bellomonte golf resort will span 336 hectares and face the sea. The chosen location is not only idyllic because “La Via Blanca” highway that connects Havana to Matanzas and Varadero passes through Bellamonte, but its southern side also offers railway connection.
Mariel – El Salado, a coastal area west of Havana
The next golf project to have been formally announced by the Cuban government in June 2015 was another joint venture between Cuba and a foreign investor. In fact, none of the 56 tourism development plans signed off in 2014 allow 100 per cent foreign funding or ownership. According to the Cuban Foreign Investment Law (FIL) passed on 2014, the local government must have a high degree of ownership of all proposed projects and joint ventures, with no foreign investor allowed complete possession of hotels or resort developments of any kind. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that the next golf project is partly co-founded by Cuba and a so-far unnamed foreign entity.
In the case of our next golf course, it was once again Cubagolf who partnered up with a Spanish developing company (whose name hasn’t been disclosed yet) to develop two proposed projects: El Salado, just west of Havana and Punta Colorado in Pinar del Rio.
The first of these would be located on the Havana-Mariel border, along the old "Carretera Panamericana" (Panamericana Roadway) with the specific site chosen being El Salado beach, a beautiful coastal area known for its great scuba diving and snorkelling appeal among the few of those that know of it.
Bound not to stay off-the-beaten-path for long, the plan is to transform this area, part of the Mariel Special Development Zone (a free trade zone designated by the Cuban government around a year ago, with the aim of sprucing up its seaport and re-route incoming cruise ships from the Havana Bay harbour, where the intention is to clear all trade to preserve its vintage appeal) to build a sprawling new golf resort, complete with luxury hotels and residences, details of which have not yet been made public. What we do know, is that the beach in this area is all natural with improvement works being currently carried out to increase its tourist appeal.
Punta Colorada in Pinar del Rio
The more western project of this lot, and the furthest from Havana, located all the way in Cuba’s westernmost province of Pinar del Rio, would span the biggest area of all, covering over 1,000 hectares stretching from the small fishing town of La Fe to the deserted beaches of Punta Colorada, this is one ambitious project that’s circulating the web under the name “Punta Colora Cuba Golf Marina” with videos on YouTube and echoed by Cibercuba pinpointing to this location and illustrating what the golf resort complex and marina would eventually look like.
If the video information and 3D-modelling preview is to be believed, this mega-development would comprise not one but three different separate resorts, the largest of which would be located in Playa Colorada and comprise 500 hectares, four 9-hole golf courses, a 250-room luxury hotel and 2,500 residential units. Then there would be another 500-hectare resort to follow on nearby Playa Larga with another 9-hole golf course, a recreational marina and 1,250 residential units. Lastly, a third development on Playa Luis would span 390 hectares of terrain, another 9-hole golf course, a sports club, one primary school and a further 1,250 residential units. The video also illustrates the transformation of the fishing village, renaming it La Nueva Fe, with more residential units for locals as well as improved fishing facilities. If the information on the video is to be believed, an additional area called La Ensenada would also have an 18-hole championship golf course, a modern yacht marina and more residential homes, bringing the total to seven golf courses in Punta Colorada plus five hotels with a total of 1,060 rooms.
But, (and this is an important observation) out of this speculative video we don’t know how much will end up actually being built, as the video itself was published over a year ago and nothing has been officially confirmed yet, but at least one golf course and hotel resort will definitely be happening here an we’ll have to wait to find out more specific details.
Dubbed to become the most spectacular, and quite possibly one of the largest and most exclusive of its kind not only in the Caribbean but in all Central America and South America, the upcoming golf resort complex in Punta Colorada is also poised to be one of the eco-friendliest developments of its kind in the world, with sustainable tools that include large solar panels. It will be located 174 kilometres west of Havana and less than an hour from Cancun and Miami, making it an ideal multi-centre holiday destination, combining Cuba with other coveted Caribbean destinations.
These last two golf projects, the one at El Salado and the one in Punta Colorada are still pending sign-off from both parties but negotiations are expected to conclude before the end of the year which means they could break ground for both projects as early as 2017.
In Cienfuegos – a mega project involving six golf resorts and six hotels
The third of these to be partly financed by a Spanish company and the fifth Cuban golf project that looks promising and truly ambitious - the most ambitious of all in fact – is also the one to be located furthest from Havana. Co-founded by Spanish company Urbas Grupo Financiero, a company that bought 30 per cent of Caribbean Resort and Golf, with the option to buy the remaining 70 per cent will take over the Cuban province of Camaguey in full golfing style, with the planning of not one but at least six golf courses (although it was initially revealed they would build ten, so there’s the possibility of this number stretching to 10 or 13 in the future) in two different areas: Rancho Luna- Pasacaballos and Playa Ingles – La Tatahagua. All in all, it would result in the construction of six golf courses and six five-star luxury resorts in Cienfuegos, as well as three apart-hotels, 1,500 villas and 3,000 apartments.
The project would span between 1,600 and 1,800 hectares, 1,402 of which would be exclusively golfing grounds and would also include the existing dolphinarium and diving centre there.
According to official sources, the Rancho Luna – Pasacaballos development, located some 20 kilometres from the Cienfuegos capital, would encompass six 18-hole championship golf courses and 16,614 rooms in hotels, apartments and villas. In the meantime, the Playa Ingles – La Tatahagua would be located a bit further from the capital, around 60 kilometres to be more precise and closer to the city of Trinidad, in fact. It would comprise three golf courses with lodging capacity in the form of 5,820 luxury suites.
But there’s more than meets the eye in Cienfuegos. We’re not sure what’s the bug that infected foreign investors with plans for projects in beautiful, colonial Cienfuegos but this is one location in high-demand that could see more golf projects in the future, and more than certainly new hotels to come. Do watch this space.
When will they be ready?
This is the trickiest question of all to answer. With Cuba you always have to be weary of announced opening dates, and this caution applies for hotels and resorts, as much as for any other project, as this is one country notorious for taking their time with everything. So, despite any rough guidance (or exact given dates) regarding the completion of these new golf projects, all approximate due dates have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The reality is that any (or more likely, all) of these projects could lag behind in terms of schedule and most people, in full Cuban fashion, expect them to. This is why we offer no due-by dates, at least not precise ones, as not only do we not know them with clarity, but even investors themselves are weary of making promises they can’t keep in a country that has its own pace for everything.
What we do know so far is that some of these projects have started work, with La Carbonera being in its early stages of development and with investors expecting the golf resort’s first phase to be completed by 2020, quite a long way when you consider there’s still more building phases to wait for after that.
Another golf project ready to start building works is the Bellomonte – El Salado development in Havana’s outskirts. In fact, this one could already be under way, as all paperwork was finalised last year. Yet, there has been no announcement of build-by date, at least not so far.
Other projects like Cienfuegos’ Rancho Luna – Pasacaballos and Playa Ingles have more optimistic deadlines, although these were announced in 2014 and neither project has broken ground yet so it could be a few more years than planned. Initially the plan was to have them ready somewhere between 2018 and 2019, but with building works only ready to start now, it could be longer than previously announced.
In truth, it probably will be at least five years from now before any of these new luxury golf resorts are ready to welcome visitors, so no rush in planning your luxury golfing holiday in Cuba yet, unless of course you plan to practice your swing at Cuba’s only 18-hole golf resort, the Varadero Golf Club where most of the island’s annual international golf tournaments take place. There’s only one other golf course in Cuba at present beyond this one, the 9-hole 1950s relic at Havana Golf Club, one Fidel Castro and Che Guevara famously mocked as back then it was regarded a game of the over-privileged bourgeoisie.
What about Cuba’s eastern area?
Beyond these five which are either fully confirmed and starting to break ground or awaiting pending sign-off, there are rumours of more golf resorts to come in Cuba, at least doubling this initial figure of five confirmed (or all but signed off) golf developments encompassing ten golf courses. If talks of other announced golf projects (which have now been put on hold) make progress it could potentially (and eventually) bring the total closer to 15 new Cuba golf courses.
More to follow suit?
There have been talks and rumours of golf resorts in Camaguey’s popular tourism enclave of Santa Lucia, and the beautiful Covarrubias beach town in the province Las Tunas, as well as a now seemingly abandoned golf project in Holguin.
A few years ago, all the above projects were announced, along with more golf plans in the Isle of Youth, Bacunayagua and Guanahacabibes. But these projects have been stagnant since, with investing company Foster + Partners having confirmed these as on hold. As for Holguin’s joint golfing venture with financing by Standing Feather International, it appears it has been altogether cancelled. But you never know, the project could be revived if another foreign investor takes interest in it.
Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism is aware of how lucrative the golf market is, and how much more money golfing visitors spend in terms of not only green fees, but luxury hotels and refined experiences, so the island is actively trying to recruit more investors and draw their attention with lucrative proposals along some of Cuba’s most beautiful and virginal coastal regions.
But for these and more to happen, Cuba needs to bring more investors to the table and raise enough funds to make them a reality. A decisive help towards this end would be the full lifting of the embargo, as U.S. golf developers are already whetting their appetite with the many possibilities this would open up.
President Obama has already made big strides towards seeing the end of the embargo, with relaxation of rules that have made it possible for giant U.S. hotel chains to set up camp in Cuba, with Starwood becoming the first U.S. company to run hotels in Cuba since 1959. It saw the former Quinta Avenida Hotel in Havana reopen as the new Four Points by Sheraton and the Hotel Inglaterra being rebranded as part of Starwood’s The Luxury Collection. They’re not stopping there, as Marriott also wants a slice of Cuban paradise and there’s an increasingly growing line of more American-run hotels to spring up all over Cuba.
Going back to the possibility of U.S. investors developing golf courses in Cuba, one source from a U.S.-backed designed company said:
"If Obama is right, and trade relations become routine, then Cuba inside a decade could be on track to becoming one of the world’s major golf destinations. It won’t take much to green light what will be another revolution."
Just a few days ago, the U.S. made a historic move towards normalising relations with Cuba by abstaining from the vote of a 25-year-old UN resolution to lift the embargo. It was the first time ever in the resolution’s history this happened and allowed for the motion to pass. Even if not legally binding, it does shine a light on the prospect of the embargo nearing its end. As golfing is regarded as tourism and leisure activity not allowed for Americans visiting the island, only the abolition of the embargo will enable American companies to partly own or run golf courses in Cuba. We stand awaiting.
So far, and without U.S. help, Cuba is already upping a level its tourism appeal, especially for golf enthusiasts with the opening of these new ten golf courses; maxing out its attractiveness for those who seek the quiet and scenic activity of swinging their way around verdant lawns, against the most dramatic of coastal backdrops.