In the wake of the communist revolution, Cuba got rid of almost every golf course in the country. Today, however, the government is working with foreign companies to build at least 13 golf resorts. The plan is to develop Cuba as a golf destination for tourists. The government hopes to lure foreign visitors willing to spend freely and, in so doing, inject much-needed cash into Cuba’s troubled economy.
Golf was an important component of the tourism economy from the 1920s through to the late 1950s. Cuba’s courses were highly regarded. The Havana Open, held at the Biltmore Country Club, was an important stop on the LPGA’s Tour. At the same time, the Country Club of Havana played host to the PGA. In the 1950s, Arnold Palmer, Patty Berg, and other golfing greats played at these two clubs.
Believing golf to be an expression of the excesses of the bourgeoisie, one of Fidel Castro’s first acts on taking over Cuba was to destroy almost every golf course. Today, only one pre-revolutionary course still exists. The Club de Golf la Habana began life in the 1920s as the Rover’s Athletics Club founded by British diplomats. This course is most famous as the place where, perhaps ironically, Castro and Che Guevara played a round of golf as a publicity stunt shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Currently, the only other course in the country is the Varadero Golf Club, part of a government-owned resort opened in 1998. With interest growing in golf tourism to Cuba, the Varadero resort is not large enough to meet demand, while the Club de Golf is an antiquated nine-hole course from another era.
As a result, the Cuban government has given preliminary approval for four additional golf resorts. These resorts will even include residences that can be bought by foreigners—a rarity in a country where private property has been all but outlawed.
Together, these projects will cost over $1.5 billion, but the government stands to reap the rewards of these developments: the government’s profits will be half of the joint venture’s total. “Golf course development brings real estate, and real estate brings business,” said Pat Montana, a former professor at Fordham and Hofstra who works with the PGA.
Jorge Luis Acosta, director general of Palmares, a state-owned company, stresses that these four projects are only the first steps the government is planning to take. Three further joint ventures to build resorts have been established. Additionally, “We plan to set up eight more joint ventures this year, and next year, we’ll have two more to finalize,” he said. Altogether, these 13 projects will cost $14.3 billion.
“Our biggest challenge to Cuba becoming a gold destination is speed,” said Acosta. “We need to work quickly.” Acosta wants to see schools in Cuba teach golf to help people refamiliarize themselves with the forgotten sport. Nonetheless, the new resorts will primarily be aimed at foreign tourists, specifically those from Europe, Canada, and Asia.
While the number tourists from these regions are expected to make the projects viable, Montana believes the U.S. will remain a potentially huge but untapped resource for the foreseeable future. “If the United States lifts the remaining restrictions with Cuba, the potential for Americans to play golf, especially Floridians in close proximity to Cuba, will be fully unleashed,” he explained.
Image of Vardero Golf Club by Gardenparty.