By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
Published: May 24, 2011
MEXICO CITY — One of Fidel Castro’s first acts upon taking power was to get rid of Cuba’s golf courses, seeking to stamp out a sport he and other socialist revolutionaries saw as the epitome of bourgeois excess.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Tourists on the government-owned golf course in the Cuban resort area of Varadero Beach. It is now Cuba's only 18-hole course.
Now, 50 years later, foreign developers say the Cuban government has swung in nearly the opposite direction, giving preliminary approval in recent weeks for four large luxury golf resorts on the island, the first in an expected wave of more than a dozen that the government anticipates will lure free-spending tourists to a nation hungry for cash.
The four initial projects total more than $1.5 billion, with the government’s cut of the profits about half. Plans for the developments include residences that foreigners will be permitted to buy — a rare opportunity from a government that all but banned private property in its push for social equality.
Mr. Castro and his comrade in arms Che Guevara, who worked as a caddie in his youth in Argentina, were photographed in fatigues hitting the links decades ago, in what some have interpreted as an effort to mock either the sport or the golf-loving president at the time of the revolution, Dwight D. Eisenhower — or both.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who maintains close ties with Cuba, has taken aim at the pastime in recent years as well, questioning why, in the face of slums and housing shortages, courses should spread over valuable land “just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit bourgeois can go and play golf.”
But Cuba’s deteriorating economy and the rise in the sport’s popularity, particularly among big-spending travelers who expect to bring their clubs wherever they go, have softened the government’s view, investors said. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Manuel Marrero, the tourism minister, told a conference in Europe this month that the government anticipates going forward with joint ventures to build 16 golf resorts in the near future.
For the past three years, Cuba’s only 18-hole course, a government-owned spread at the Varadero Beach resort area, has even hosted a tournament. It has long ceased to be, its promoters argued, a rich man’s game.
“We were told this foray is the top priority in foreign investment,” said Graham Cooke, a Canadian golf course architect designing a $410 million project at Guardalavaca Beach, along the island’s north coast about 500 miles from Havana, for a consortium of Indians from Canada. The company, Standing Feather International, says it signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cuban government in late April and will be the first to break ground, in September.
Andrew Macdonald, the chief executive of London-based Esencia Group, which helps sponsor the golf tournament in Cuba and is planning a $300 million country club in Varadero, said, “This is a fundamental development in having a more eclectic tourist sector.”
The other developments are expected to include at least one of the three proposed by Leisure Canada, a Vancouver-based firm that recently announced a licensing agreement with the Professional Golfers Association for its planned resorts in Cuba, and a resort being designed by Foster & Partners of London.
The projects are primarily aimed at Canadian, European and Asian tourists; Americans are not permitted to spend money on the island, under the cold-war-era trade embargo, unless they have a license from the Treasury Department.
Developers working on the new projects said they believed Cuba had a dozen or so courses before the revolution, some of which were turned into military bases. Cuba and foreign investors for years have talked about building new golf resorts, but the proposals often butted against revolutionary ideals and red tape. Several policy changes adopted at a Communist Party congress in April, however, appear to have helped clear the way, including one resolution specifically naming golf and marinas as important assets in developing tourism and rescuing the sagging economy.
“Cuba saw the normal sun and salsa beach offerings and knew it was not going to be sustainable,” said Chris Nicholas, managing director of Standing Feather, which negotiated for eight years with Cuba’s state-run tourism company. “They needed more facets of tourism to offer and decided golf was an excellent way to go.”
The developers said putting housing in the complexes was important to make them more attractive to tourists and investors, and to increase profits.
Still, John Kavulich, a senior adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Cuba had a history of pulling back on perceived big steps toward freer enterprise and might wrestle to explain how such high-dollar compounds could coexist with often dilapidated housing for everyone else.
“Will Cuba allow Cuban citizens to be members, to play?” he said. “How will that work out? Allowing someone to work there and allowing someone to prosper there is an immense deep ravine for the government.”
But Mr. Macdonald said political issues were moot, given that Cuba already had come to terms with several beach resorts near Havana that generally attracted middle-class foreign travelers.
“It’s not an issue for them,” he said. “It’s tourism. It’s people coming to visit the country.”
If the projects are built as envisioned, the tourists will enjoy not just new, state-of-the-art courses and the opportunity for a second home in Cuba, but shopping malls, spas and other luxury perks. Standing Feather, which calls its complex Estancias de Golf Loma Linda (Loma Linda Golf Estates), promises 1,200 villas, bungalows, duplexes and apartments set on 520 acres framed by mountains and beach.
The residences are expected to average $600,000, and rooms at the 170-room hotel the complex will include may go for about $200 a night, a stark contrast in a nation where salaries average $20 a month.
Standing Feather said that to build a sense of community and provide the creature comforts of home among its clientele, the complex will include its own shopping center, selling North American products under relaxed customs regulations.
“It is in the area that Castro is from, in Holguin Province,” added Mr. Cooke,