HAVANA, 29 December Barely days after the fall of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, two of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, walked into Havana Golf Club and, still dressed in military fatigues, proceeded to mock a bourgeois pursuit of the rich: they played golf.
The pair putted, swung clubs and probably joked about their plans to close the dozen or so Cuban clubs that had once been the playground of wealthy American tourists. The tanks of Castro’s revolution were soon on the island’s fairways, most of them destined to become military facilities or schools. Half a century later, the Royal & Ancient game is no longer a capitalist pariah.
President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that the US would end long-standing trade restrictions with Cuba and normalise their diplomatic relationship, puts golf at the forefront of international investment projects expected to flood into Castro’s former fiefdom.
Cuba, just 90 miles south of Miami and with 3,500 miles of Caribbean coastline, has been topographically surveyed over the past 20 years by many of the world’s leading golf developers, all waiting for the day when access to this natural treasure would be possible. So is golf about to explode in Cuba? Jeremy Slessor, managing director of European Golf Design (EGD), which has construction projects in Morocco, Bahrain, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Italy, Turkey and Russia, thinks it is “inevitable”.
Mr Slessor said: “There have been a lot of people and international companies who have been talking about development in Cuba over the past five years or so.” EGD has American owners who have been careful about operating within US federal laws that clamped down on investment in Cuba. Other international developers, however, have been less patient.
The Independent has been told that leading investment companies, who specialise in property linked to golf developments, have already commissioned detailed analysis of prime Cuban sites. A source at one design company, which has US backers, 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.”
The low-key nine-hole Havana Golf Club is the capital’s sole-survivor from the Batista days. Varadero, on the thin Hicacos peninsula, used to be part of Irenee Du Pont’s pre-revolution estate. In 1999, Spanish companies were allowed to invest in hotels on the peninsula, and an 18-hole course was opened. But that was it. Other resort projects have been listed, promoted, talked-up, but never happened. Red tape and Castro’s communist legacy often proved a substantial barrier.
At the beginning of 2014, Grupo Palmares, the Cuban state company responsible for golf development, announced a joint deal with Esencia Hotels, a UK-based firm with a lengthy track-record of investment in Cuba. Esencia’s chairman is the former Labour energy minister, Brian Wilson, who also runs the company’s Havana Energy division in joint partnership with Cuban state entities.
The Cabonera Golf and Country Club is a $350m (£225m) project by Esencia. The Cuban tourism ministry expects another venture east of Havana, run jointly with a Chinese firm, to be completed soon.
Spanish firms have two proposed projects: El Salado, west of Havana, and Punta Colorado, in Pinar del Rio. Other resorts are planned for Camaguey in eastern Cuba, in Covarrubias and Las Tunas in the south-east, and for Cienfunetos and Rancho Luna on the south coast. These projects were given a boost early this year when the National Assembly approved a law on foreign investment, which ensured tax incentives for partnership projects forged with foreign companies.
However, it is Mr Obama who is the game-changer. The projects above the Cuban state radar are expected to be joined by numerous other below-the-radar deals that were kept quiet until the US lifted sanctions. The Obama declaration, bringing Cuba in the from the cold after 50 years, points to America’s big-spending golfers soon having new Caribbean fairways to play on.