May 8, 2008 / 3:08 AM / in 10 years

Cuba embraces golf to boost tourism

HAVANA (Reuters) - The only time Cuba’s Fidel Castro is known to have played golf was in 1961, in a stunt thumbing his nose at the United States.

<p>Ernesto "Che" Guevara plays golf as Fidel Castro stands behind him at Colina Villareal in Havana in this undated file picture. REUTERS/Prensa Latina</p>

Now that Fidel has handed over power to his brother, Raul, Communist Cuba is setting aside any ideological objections and is embracing golf, the most capitalist of sports.

Investors from Canada and Europe have proposed building gated communities with luxury hotels, villas and condos surrounding 18 and 36-hole golf courses near beach resorts across the Caribbean island.

Some of the projects, which include one by top British architect Norman Foster’s firm, have been on the drawing board for years and their backers are hoping Cuba’s new president, Raul Castro, will give them the green light to revive golf.

“Old-school objections to golf on ideological grounds have fallen away,” said Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Havana who now consults to foreign companies planning to do business here.

“Golf is seen as important to develop a more sophisticated and repeat tourism beyond sun and sand,” said Entwistle, who is advising one of the golf community projects.

Since succeeding his brother, Fidel Castro, in February, Cuba’s first new leader in almost half a century has set about lifting restrictions in the one-party socialist state, such as allowing Cubans to stay at hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists.

He does not appear to share his famous brother’s abhorrence for the bourgeois sport of golf. There are today at least 10 golf resort projects in the pipeline at various stages in the approval process, Entwistle said.

The only time Fidel Castro was seen armed with a putter instead of a gun was two years after seizing power in the revolution in 1959 that ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and changed Cuba from a Mafia playground into a Soviet ally.

That was in March 1961, one month before the disastrous landing by CIA-trained Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Tensions were running high between Havana and Washington, and Castro played golf with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, wearing military fatigues and boots, as a publicity stunt.

Guerrilla icon Guevara at least knew how to play the game, having worked as a caddy as a boy in Cordoba, Argentina.

But the Colinas de Villareal golf course where the two revolutionaries played was soon turned into a military camp.

Havana’s elite Country Club was taken over and its fairways became the grounds of Cuba’s top arts and music school.

Today, Cuba’s capital has only one 9-hole course, the former British-owned Rovers Athletic Club, where foreign businessmen and diplomats play.

The rugged course has seen better days -- sticks are used for flag poles on the parched greens. Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona played there almost every day when he lived in Cuba undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction.

XANADU CLUB HOUSE

The only new golf course since the Cuban revolution was opened in 1998 at Cuba’s prime resort of Varadero after the country opened up to foreign investment and tourism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 18-hole Varadero Golf Club is on the grounds of Xanadu, a seaside mansion built by U.S. chemical industry millionaire Irenee du Pont.

Cuba’s new interest in golf arises in response to the stagnation of its $2 billion-a-year tourist trade, which saw the number of visitors dwindle in 2006 and 2007.

Cuba has no choice but to build new golf courses if it wants to compete with other Caribbean resorts in Mexico, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, a smaller country that draws more tourists than Cuba and has 22 golf courses, says Miami lawyer Antonio Zamora, an expert on Cuban real estate.

“If you have a tourist industry you have to offer tourists what they want, and they want golf courses as much as they want beaches, pools and entertainment,” Zamora said.

But no developer builds a golf course if there is no real estate involved, and that has been a hurdle for proposals made by foreign entrepreneurs, who would need leases of 50 to 75 years before they could commit to a project.

Cuba does not allow foreigners to own property and is not expected to do so in the near future. The Cuban government has yet to approve a single golf project as it debates whether to allow long-term leases, said Zamora.

Leisure Canada Inc, a Vancouver-based venture run by mining and real estate developer Wally Berukoff, has waited more than a decade for approval to build a gated community with sea-front hotels, time-share villas, health spas and 18-hole golf courses at Jibacoa, 40 miles east of Havana.

Leisure Canada has even signed a licensing agreement with Britain’s Professional Golf Association to promote world class golf and tournaments in Cuba, the company’s website says.

One project that is likely to move ahead -- because it does not involve real estate -- is the Hicacos marina and golf resort to be built in Varadero by French engineering group Bouygues S.A. for Gaviota, the Cuban army’s tourism company.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Eddie Evans

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