Is Cuba Golf's Next Hot Spot?

Very few people would think the land of Fidel Castro, a communist with an avowed dislike for the bourgeoisie game of golf, could become a golf destination. But there are rumblings that the long-isolated country may be moving forward on several golf-related resort and residential projects.

In his article in the St. Petersburg Times, reporter David Adams delves into the island nation south of Florida and how it needs to generate revenues to offset the loss of trade with its former long-time partner, the Soviet Union. A dozen golf projects are now in preliminary planning, with each proposing hundreds of villas and apartments around the courses. In addition, several foreign developers are interested in providing the backing and expertise to build them.

"The message coming from the Cubans is: Bring us golf projects," said Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who represents one of the investor groups. In comments to Adams, Entwistle said Cuban tourism officials "crossed the Rubicon of the ideological perception of golf a long time ago. It's now a priority of tourism development."

After ignoring tourist dollars for decades, Cuba began turning to the travel industry in the 1990s. Dozens of new hotels were built and, by 2005, 2.3 million visitors came to the nation, generating about $2 billion in revenues. But tourist visas dropped 4.3 percent in 2006 and were down even further last year, so Cuba is pursuing several measures to bring back tourism levels, including golf resorts, marinas and hotels.

Before the Communist revolution spawned by Castro and the rebellious Che Guevara, Cuba offered several quality golf courses, including two in Havana designed by the eminent Donald Ross. The Country Club of Havana and the Havana Biltmore Golf Club were popular spots for the rich and famous, including PGA Tour stars like Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

But after the revolution the courses were either converted into other uses or abandoned altogether. The only course that survives from that era is the nine-hole Havana Golf Club which, because of the constant threat of theft, utilizes flagsticks consisting of tree branches.

"These courses are gone forever," said Max Lesnick, a Cuban-American exile radio broadcaster who has personally encouraged Castro to revive golf in the country. "But there's lots of other places where new courses could be built."

Only one course was built during the Castro years. The layout at Veradero Beach Resort east of Havana was created without foreign investment and took almost a decade to complete. Canadian golf architect Les Furber designed the layout. "We had lots of false starts," Furber told Adams, recalling how a lack of diesel and credit kept interrupting earth-moving on the site. "We tried to have 25 to 50 trucks working, but sometimes there were only four or five available."

Though some skeptics say that the game has no future on the island - "In Cuba, there's no culture of golf . . . our authorities have other interests," scoffed Havana caddie Orlando Vega, the government is in the process of removing barriers to enhance foreign investment to change that perception. In the past, Castro prohibited foreign companies from running wholly owned operations, requiring "joint venture agreements" whereby outside investors could own only a 49 percent stake in projects they financed. But the government is said to be offering potential residents 75-year leases, which would allow developers to realize bigger returns on their investments.

Another big obstacle is the ongoing U.S. trade embargo that prevents American tourists from traveling to Cuba. President George W. Bush has staunchly opposed dropping the embargo during his two terms in office, due mainly to Castro's Communist regime. But Castro recently stepped down as Cuba's leader, handing the reins to the country to his brother Raul, who many expect to be much more amenable to opening up dialogue with Americans.

Meanwhile, there's considerable interest in Cuban golf developments from Canadian and European companies, including Foster and Partners, one of London's top architecture firms, and Bouygues Batiment, one of France's largest construction companies.

While the neighboring Dominican Republic has become a thriving destination, with many of its 3.5 million annual visitors bringing golf clubs, and much smaller and remote Caribbean isles like Anguilla building a golf resort, will it be long before Cuba tees off on its own projects?