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How Cuba is to become the Caribbean's number one golf destination

The current development of various golf resorts in Cuba means that the island will go from having just one 18-hole championship golf course in Varadero to offer at least 11 scattered around the island's north-western coast. Of these golf projects one has been underway since 2014 and is expected to open soon, the other two are much larger and will take several years to develop. Here we explore the ways in which Cuba's new golf resorts will forever change the island's luxury tourism market.

How Cuba is to become the Caribbean's number one golf destination

In a previous post published a little over a year ago, I went over how Cuba had been hard at work trying to find investors for a series of new golf developments islandwide. Since then, a few of the projects have gone through all the preliminary signing off stages after secured financing and are firmly underway. The most advanced of these projects is the Carbonera Club, a luxury golf development that includes residential properties that can be purchased by foreigners (a first in Cuba for over 60 years!). With a strategic location close to the massively popular Varadero beach resort (Cuba’s premier sun and sand destination) it is expected to open as soon as by the end of next year, though no official date has been announced yet (I’m working on obtaining further information regarding a tentative completion date). Once opened, the Carbonera will be the first to rival Varadero’s legendary golf course, designed by Les Furber and going all the way back to 1933. The new development will bring a breath of fresh air and modern facilities to stand in stark contrast to Varadero’s veteran grounds. Yet I don’t think that Varadero will lose an ounce of its appeal; it will go from being the island’s only championship golf course to become the island’s original, first ever 18-hole golf course, where famous characters and international celebrities teed off in the sunshine. It will remain a well-aged relic that will continue to offer scenic recreation for golf lovers.

But turning our attention back to Cuba’s golfing ambitions, the Carbonera Club is just the start. There are two other confirmed projects already breaking ground, and between the two they will add 9 golf courses to the island. Cuba will go from having just two golf courses (Varadero’s 18-hole one and Club Habana’s 9-hole alternative) to boasting a total of at least 11. And I underline “at least” given that the Cuban government is still open to receiving more golf development offers from foreign investors. But it won’t happen overnight. Seven of these golf courses, which will all be built in Pinar del Rio’s virginal Guanahacabibes peninsula, will take an estimated 25 years to build. So there’s two decades ahead of us before Cuba becomes the Caribbean’s premier golf destination.

In the meantime, the current favourite Caribbean hotspots for golfers are the Dominican Republic and Jamaica with 26 and 12 golf courses respectively. Once the announced developments are ready Cuba would be closer to Jamaica in terms of number and variety of golf courses, but still far from the Dom Rep’s whopping total of 26. Still, Cuba’s new golfing enclaves would be newer and would have the added appeal of a (previously) little-exploited and unexplored island in terms of golfing potential - the lure of the exotic, new and unknown, in comparison to Dom Rep’s much-trodden grounds. Cuba’s drastic and ambitious golf transformation would shift the focus to the larger of the Antilles, at least for a good ten years or so after their opening, and the island’s tourism product wouldn’t have anything to envy that of their neighbours’. And, if the (for now) dormant plans for even more golf resorts are taken up by foreign investors in the coming few years, Cuba would match and even surpass the Dominican Republic’s quantity and variety of golf courses. Welcome to Cuba’s golfing revolution.

Why is Cuba banking on the golf holiday market? Why now?

For many readers, especially those from older generations, the news that Cuba aims to become a premier golf destination with high-end facilities and luxury real estate developments to go with it (oh, and to be owned by foreigners, no less!) can be bewildering to say the least, given the country’s decades’ long stance against anything deemed “elitist”, “capitalist” or “bourgeoisie”. Golf is a sport that definitely ticks all of those boxes. And letting foreigners buy high-end property erected in Cuban land is not something that was possible even ten years ago. The idea of the higher classes (Cuban or otherwise) having the purchasing power to acquire private property was unfathomable, especially when you take into account that upon the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro ousted all Americans and claimed all their properties in Cuba, which instantly became the government’s.

In more recent years, and especially since Fidel Castro stepped down and ceded power to his brother Raul, this previously staunch posture against all forms of foreign ownership has been slowly reversed to help the ailing Cuban economy. The paternalistic approach has been modified to allow for new forms of private entrepreneurship (inspired by the Chinese model to strike the balance between public and private ownership) and Cubans are finally able to sell and buy houses, as well as set up their own businesses.

Returning to our main topic, when we talk about upscale leisure options like golf, it was a practically non-existent recreational sport in Cuba save for the one golf course that was spared in Varadero and the mini-golf at Club Habana (while others were dug up to give way to schools like the International School of Arts, built on the grounds of the former Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club).

How the tables turned

If we go back in history to five decades ago, we stumble upon the forever immortalised moment (thanks to photographer Alberto Korda) that saw Fidel Castro and Che Guevara battle it out on a golf course in a mocking gesture to the then U.S. President Eisenhower, who was known to be a talented and keen golfer. Making fun of the president’s prestige and ability at a sport deemed for the elite, this antagonising move made it to newspapers worldwide, along with Fidel’s dismissing words for the sport of the privileged, the snobbish, the classist and the oppressive upper layers of society; scorned for being out of touch with the useful, hard-working lower classes. In Fidel Castro’s words, golf was a “game of the idle rich” and he “knew absolutely nothing about this expensive sport”. Ironically enough, many years down the line, one of Fidel Castro’s sons, Antonio Castro, would turn out to be a golf champion in his own country (he won the Esencia Cup at Varadero’s Copa Montecristo tournament in 2013) and mastered the sport his father failed to warm up to.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

Despite the revolution’s initial repulsion for anything deemed “elitist” or “exclusive”, the collapse of the USSR (the backbone of Cuban economy in the 60s, 70s and 80s) meant that Cuba had to find a new support for its already fragile and rapidly crumbling economy. With a no-longer existing sugar industry and escalating external debt, by the 1990s Cuba’s badly starved economy was forced to look at exterior sources of income. Tourism became an option, it soon became the number one source of income and it has continued to be the country’s main economy driver since then; more so than ever now that many newly-sprung private businesses on the island depend on it.

In 2010 Cuba (and much of the world) felt the blow of the recession hit its tourism-based economy hard and as worldwide disposable incomes dropped to an all-time low, the island underwent a bit of soul-searching to see how it could distinguish itself from the competition; namely other Caribbean islands vying for the upper crusts of holidaymakers - the rich, the wealthy, the no-expenses-spared big spenders who liked to travel in style and who where the least affected by the downturn in the global economy. This is when Cuba realised it had not been properly catering for luxury travellers, not like other destinations like Jamaica or the Dominican Republic were doing. The income of most visitors to Cuba was not in the same category as those that travelled to new emerging destinations. Cuba had long focused its attention on all-inclusive resorts, attracting Canadian and European visitors seeking good value for money and lured by discounted package offers. So, while visitors to the Mexican Caribbean, Jamaica, Panama and the Dominican Republic were spending more per day on their holidays, the amount spent by tourists in Cuba appeared to shrink more and more over time. Cuba was not catering to luxury travellers properly. Something had to be done.

That is how the idea of improving Cuba’s golfing options dawned on the island’s tourism authorities and almost overnight, plans were drawn to attract foreign investors and secure financing for lavish new golf courses to be built all over the country, alongside new luxury properties and hotels. Laws were changed and adapted to allow foreign property ownership. The ball started rolling.

For over seven years now Cuba has been keen to capitalise on the lucrative golf market to increase tourism revenues and lure wealthier visitors to its shores. The plan seems to be working, albeit slowly. While many developments are still waiting for an undertaker to bring them to life, things are definitely progressing.

The progress so far - golf courses in the making

The plans that were drawn up by the Cuban government to add golfing facilities to the island envisage around 20 to 25 new golf courses, but only financing for around 11 of these has been obtained so far. The other plans haven’t been scrapped though, they’re just awaiting investors; a few have shown interest but haven’t put pen to paper when it comes to the signing of a final contract yet. Here we take a look at the ones who have done and how far their projects have gone.

The Carbonera Golf Cuby by Esencia - opening before 2020 (hopefully?)

The result of a partnership between the Cuban state-owned entity Cuba Golf and the British Esencia group, this is the first project to have taken off, with building works having started in 2014 and an official website launched. The $350 million plan entails the construction of an 18-hole championship golf course by Jacklin Design, a Jacklin Academy of Golf, a Yacht Club and a luxury hotel - the GHM Hotel and Spa - all perfectly poised within minutes to Varadero’s soft white sands. The Carbonera Club will also include a gated community with residential homes available for purchase. In theory, the expectations were for it to be ready by 2019 but there hasn’t been any official release for a while yet, so we wait with bated breath. Could it open sooner? 

Punta Colorada - the Caribbean’s ultimate golfing paradise

A mixed enterprise between Cuba Golf and Playa Golf & Resorts International Panama, S.A comes the most ambitious project in this list; the Punta Colorada Golf & Marina tourism complex. It will entail the creation of seven 18-hole golf courses, six club houses, five hotels (all 5-stars) and 6,750 residential homes and villas as well as 13,250 apartments to be sold on a perpetuity (freehold) basis.

On top of it all, the complex is to also include two marinas with 400 berths. With so much to be done and in such a great scale, the project is expected to take 25 years to complete and will be carried out in several stages, the first of which will comprise an 18-hole golf course, a practice field, a house club, a five-star luxury hotel with 150 rooms, 900 houses and 600 apartments, a shopping centre, sports centre with tennis courts, pools and spa, as well as infrastructural works.

A completely virginal region in Cuba’s easternmost point, Punta Colorada has been dubbed Cuba’s “Last Treasure”, a true nearly-deserted paradise on earth where the aquamarine waters are crystalline, the sun shines brightly and the dazzling nature remains untouched. Less than an hour from other nearby coveted destinations like Cancun and Miami and two hours (174 km) from Havana, the new Punta Colorada Golf & Marina will put Cuba firmly on the map as a sustainable eco-luxury development that will respect its natural surroundings. Part of the Guanahacabibes peninsula, this zone is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1987, so painstaking efforts will be made to develop it in the most eco-friendly way possible. Just a stone’s throw from the Parque Nacional Guanahacabibes

Punta Colorada will furthermore be just a short drive away from Pinar del Rio’s most famous attraction; the also UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of the Vinales Valley with its rolling plains, iconic “mogotes” and plantations that grow the finest cigars in the world. It will also be located just minutes from the International Diving Centre of Maria La Gorda. The setting couldn’t be more idyllic and the nearby attractions more enticing.

Bellomonte - Havana’s premier golfing destination

Right now Havana only has one golf course and it isn’t even a championship one. Club Habana’s nine-hole golf course is nice enough but nowhere near enough to make the Cuban capital a golfing destination. Once upon a time, the city was renowned for its prestigious Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club in the municipality of Jaimanitas, home to a scenic 18-hole golf course where the rich and the famous flocked to for some quality teeing off in the sunshine. After the revolution, the golf course’s grounds were dug up and the area was remodelled to build an art school. Havana was left devoid of its golfing glory.

But not for much longer. The new Bellomonte golf complex currently being developed east of the city will turn Havana into a prime golfing destination once again, bestowing it the golfing prestige it was robbed off nearly six decades ago.

A mixed venture between Beijing Enterprises Holdings Limited and Cuba’s state-owned Grupo Palmares, the project was signed off last year during the 35th edition of Cuba’s FITUR (Feria Internacional del Turismo, a.k.a. International Tourism Fair) and works are said to be already under way. Beyond an 18-hole championship golf course, the new complex is to also include a luxury hotel, residential houses and apartments, all in lush grounds covering 336 hectares.

Others in the pipeline

The golf developments described above are all confirmed, signed off and either in the early stages of construction (Punta Colorada and Bellomonte) or already well under way and nearing their completion (as is the case with The Carbonera Club).

But Cuba is keen to build more and more golf courses to dot the entire island and has plans for another golf course west of Havana (facing El Salado beach), a golf complex in Cienfuegos, another in Camaguey and another in Las Tunas. All of these are still in the talking and negotiation stages with Spanish firm, Urbas Grupo Financiero having shown a keen interest in the development of a golf resort in Cienfuegos after acquiring 30 per cent of Cuba’s Caribbean Resort and Golf company (with the option of also buying the remaining 70 per cent. More specifically, the plan is to develop six golf courses, six 5-star hotels, three apart-hotels, a marina, 1,500 villas and 3,000 apartments. Watch this space.

Susana Corona

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