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Is Cuba Golf's Next Frontier?
With an easing of the Castro regime's draconian policies on any activity viewed as bourgeois and an increasing thirst for tourist dollars, the Republic of Cuba is in the process of welcoming back golf.
At one time the most populous - now with 11 million residents - Caribbean island nation boasted a dozen or more golf courses. But when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, all but 27 holes were usurped for uses other than the playing of the Royal & Ancient Game.
But that may be changing, thanks to foreign investment in several golf-related developments. "Golf is becoming a reality in Cuba this year," Andrew MacDonald, chief executive of London-based Esencia Hotels and Resorts, told CNN (for the full report, visit http://www.cnn.com/2011/SPORT/golf/02/21/cuba.golf.revolution.castro/).
"The key moment was a change in Cuban property law last August to make foreign ownership far more attractive. The Cuban government has a vision of establishing 15-16 new golf courses in the next five to seven years."
According to reporter Will Tidey in the CNN report, MacDonald's firm is close to breaking ground on Carbonera Country Club, part of a $300 million project in a resort area called Varadero, which already has the 18-hole Varadero Golf Club (the other Cuban course is the rundown, nine-hole Havana Golf Club).
A Cuban investment group based in Vancouver, B.C., Leisure Canada, has three projects in the works in the Pinar del Rio province on Cuba's west coast, and a London firm called Foster and Partners told CNN it has been hired by a Spanish developer to build a 2,000-unit community with three courses in the same area.
Tourist minister Manuel Marrero confirmed that in 2010 the Council of Ministers approved 16 golf developments, saying that the sport was important to the country's plans to increase tourism.
Canadian golf architect Les Furber oversaw a $20 million expansion - financed by the Cuban government - of Varadero GC in 1998. He told Tidey that that project was made more arduous because of the American embargo which has been in place since 1962.
"Because of the U.S. embargo on products and services it was challenging to get many of the things we needed, and the economic time meant it took eight years to build the golf course due to the lack of diesel fuel, tires and batteries etc," Furber said.
Despite such difficulties, Furber is one member of the international golf community who believes Cuba has a bright future as a tourist destination, particularly for North Americans. "Cuba is 90 miles from Miami and has a great climate, coastal frontage for development and needs golf to support the tourism demands," he told Tidey.
"Cuba recognizes now that it does not have any financial support from foreign countries and needs tourism in a big way to help pay for its imports and lines of credit for most things it does not produce or manufacture," Furber added.
Though there are skeptics - Havana GC's pro Johan Vega told Tidey: "When the new ones open show them to me . . . then I will know it is true" - outsiders such as MacDonald express more confidence.
"Golf just wasn't a priority in Cuba before and now it is," MacDonald said. "We hope that in years to come emerging young players will have the chance to develop and compete on an international level. Cuba is known for its baseball players, and when you think about it the golf swing is not a million miles away from that used in baseball."
Also a factor in the spurt in Cuba's golf development is the introduction of golf as an Olympic sport for the 2016 games in Brazil. "It is important that support is given to many people in Cuba to play, practice and participate in golf," Spanish touring pro Alvaro Quiros said after a 2010 appearance at Varadero GC.
"Golf will be an Olympic event in 2016. Cuba should seriously look at and prepare for golf as they have done with other sports - baseball, boxing, track and field," added the long-hitting four-time winner on the European Tour.
While the embargo has severely limited travel by Americans to Cuba, 10 million U.S. citizens are allowed to visit the country because of their Cuban lineage.
But MacDonald sees that restriction changing, albeit gradually. "I see that coming in softly over the next few years," he told Tidey.