May 4, 2010 / 9:22 PM / 7 years ago

Tourist-hungry Cuba opens door to golf courses

<p>A man walks in a golf course in Varadero, Cuba May 4, 2008. REUTERS/Claudia Daut</p>

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has approved the development of golf courses, marinas and other real estate projects by foreign investors to boost the communist-run island’s tourism industry, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said on Tuesday.

The measure appears to open doors to foreign companies that have long-pending proposals to build at least 10 golf courses on the Caribbean island, where there are now only two.

“With the objective of developing regions that today are virgin, a policy was approved that permits real estate development associated with tourism, fundamentally golf courses, marinas and other complementary tourist investments,” Marrero told a news conference at Cuba’s annual International Tourism Fair.

Marrero said the Cuban government was in advanced negotiations with “several potential foreign partners” to build golf developments.

Golf is seen by cash-strapped Cuba as a way to attract more tourists to the island, and more with money. Last year, 2.4 million tourists visited, but they spent 12 percent less than in 2008, according to government statistics.

Even with the decline, tourism brought in more than $2 billion last year, or about 20 percent of Cuban’s foreign exchange income. Marrero said just over a million people visited Cuba in the first four months of 2010.

Cuba once had a dozen golf courses, but almost all were eliminated after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

Havana has a nine-hole course used mostly by diplomats and foreign business officials, and the beach resort of Varadero, 85 miles east of the capital has an 18-hole course.

The proposed courses would include construction of luxury condos and homes, which has been a major sticking point in getting approval by the government.

LONG LEASES

Cuba prohibits foreign ownership, so golf course developers have proposed they be given long leases for their projects.

The government permitted the construction of a handful of condominiums in association with foreign companies at the end of the 1990s, most of which were sold or rented to foreigners.

Dozens of luxury hotels also have been built in joint ventures with international hotel chains.

A huge marina is being built at Varadero with the hope that U.S. sailors will one day make the 90-mile trip across the Straits of Florida to Cuba.

Americans are generally banned from visiting Cuba due to the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island, but legislation is pending in the U.S. Congress to lift the ban.

Marrero did not offer other details about the new policy, but said the official regulations would be published soon.

The new businesses “will permit the beginning of another stage for development of Cuban tourism ... in areas with tourist potential that still aren’t exploited,” he said.

Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Jeff Franks and Peter Cooney

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