Like most Cuban villages, Carbonera consists of run-down concrete-block buildings in blue, pink, and green arrayed along muddy, potholed roads, with a small general store. London and Regional Properties Ltd. is preparing to bet $500 million on the place.
The British developer is planning an 18-hole golf course, 1,000 villas and apartments, a 135-room hotel, a tennis academy and a marina in a place it plans to rechristen The Carbonera Club. As President Barack Obama’s visit to the island marks a new chapter in Cuban history, the company says it envisions flying in foreigners to play what Fidel Castro once derided as “a game of the idle rich and exploiters of the people.”
“Cuba doesn’t have high-end beach-front resorts like this," said Desmond Taljaard, London and Regional’s managing director of hotels, of plans for the resort on Cuba’s Florida Straits, south of Key West.
Foreign developers have proposed at least a dozen golf resorts in recent years. Beijing Enterprise Group signed a letter of intent last year to build an 18-hole course and condominiums near Havana. And Spain’s Urbas Grupo Financiero said it has lined up 30 percent of the financing for a resort with a marina and six golf courses in Cienfuegos on the southern coast.
The pioneers face a rough road. Since 2008, when the Tourism Ministry announced ambitious plans to attract foreign golfers, not a single new tee box, fairway or green has been built. The business highlights the difficulties of investing in Cuba: Laws that forbid land ownership and limit foreign participation in joint ventures to 49 percent, woeful access to supplies and equipment, and a Communist party bureaucracy that approves every decision.
In the early days of the revolution, Castro expropriated golf courses, turning some into community centers and leaving others for nature to reclaim. Today, Cuba has just two places to golf -- a nine-hole course in Havana that dates from the ’40s and is mostly used by diplomats, and an 18-holer in the beach resort of Varadero.
The game remains out of reach for the vast majority of Cubans. Green fees for 18 holes at Varadero run about $70, or roughly three times the average monthly wage in state-owned companies. Clubs cost another two months’ wages ($50) and a golf cart--required to play -- is $30 per person.
Although the Varadero course was built in the 1930s by Irenee du Pont, president of the chemicals giant, it had fallen into disrepair by the 1990s when the Cubans were developing the area as a sun, surf, and sand mecca for foreign tourists. Les Furber, the designer hired to rebuild it, recalls the Cubans he worked with as eager, ambitious, and totally clueless about the game.
“I spent a lot of time in the classroom, making them understand what the game of golf was,” Furber said.