Golf in Cuba?

The tourist-hungry communist country hopes to tap into that market as a way of enticing visitors to stay longer and to spend more money outside of Havana.

Cuba has approved the development of golf courses, marinas and other real estate as part of its strategy to boost tourism, and it is negotiating with "several potential foreign partners" to build at least 10 courses, according to Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero.

Although interest seems keen, there are no groundbreakings scheduled for any projects financed by foreigners, Marrero said.

In fact, many of these proposals have languished for years, but now that the government is seeking new revenue streams for tourism, things could move ahead.

The plan, touted by Cuban officials at the recent U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit in Cancun, also included announcements of future hotel and airport expansions.

In its heyday, Cuba boasted a dozen courses, most of which were eliminated after Fidel Castro took over in 1959. However, Che Guevara and Castro played a highly publicized round in 1961, a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion. Guevara bested Castro, shooting 127 to Castro’s 150 on a par-70 golf course.

That pretty much sealed the fate of the sport, until now.

Cuba currently has two courses. Diplomats and foreign officials occasionally use a nine-hole course near Havana’s airport.

The beach resort of Varadero, 85 miles east of the capital, has an 18-hole course that was designed by a Canadian architect. Greens fees are approximately $73; rental of an electric golf cart, bags and clubs is $100.

The course opened in 1999 and recently hosted two one-day pro-am tournaments featuring a half-dozen Cuban golfers paired with wealthy foreigners.

Organizers say the events are small steps in a campaign to bring golf back to Cuba.

While Cuba’s annual tourism statistics are the envy of many other Caribbean islands — more than 1.1 million visitors from January through April — most visitors stay in Havana or at the all-inclusive beach resorts.

The government wants the foreigners out in the countryside, teeing off on emerald fairways, smoking cigars on the putting green and sipping tequila at the 19th hole.

It’s par for the course.

This report appeared in the May 24 issue of Travel Weekly.

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