Golf and Beach Vacation on the Forbidden Isle

By Bill Nestor

Photos courtesy of Esencia Image Gallery, except where noted
(Click Here to Read More About Golf in Cuba - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow)

Cuba: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow. Click here to read more.

Don’t pack the clubs for a golf or beach vacation in Cuba just yet, but keep a watchful eye--for the times they are a-changing. Action on a number of fronts offers hope that the easing of travel restrictions for Americans and even trade limitations might become reality in the not-so-distant future. And hopefully more courses will also be ready for play.

Fidel Castro teeing it up during legendary golf match with Che' Guevara at Havana's Colinas Villareal Course, around 1960.

Choices for golf are limited at the moment, a situation perhaps traceable to a legendary golf match between Fidel Castro and Che’ Guevara at Havana’s Colinas Villareal Course, around 1960. Playing in combat boots and army fatigues likely didn’t help their games, such as they were: Che’s 127 bested Fidel’s 150.

Whether the match was staged to break the ice with JFK and Ike, two of the most avid and accomplished U.S. President golfers, or to mock the capitalist leaders will probably never be known. However, shortly after the match a funny thing happened on revolution road. Most of the existing golf courses were converted—the Country Club of Havana became a music/dance academy, while the Havana Biltmore Country Club and Colinas Villareal were designated for military uses.

Only the nine-hole Havana Golf Club was left for visiting tourists and foreign diplomats. Until 1998 it and Yatera Seca Golf Course, a nine-holer at the U.S. Naval Station on Guantanamo Bay, were the only golf courses in Cuba. The base, occupying 26, 600 acres as part of a 99-year lease due to expire in 2034, is off limits to Cubans,

The streets of Havana show restored apartment buildings. (Photo by: Howie Kastner)

In 1998 the Cuban government built the Varadero Golf Club at the Xanadu Estate. There had been a nine-hole course on the 444-acre property previously owned by American millionaire Irenee Du Pont and the grounds had been kept up even though the original layout was abandoned years before. The Xanadu Mansion remains atop a rocky bluff with majestic and commanding views of blue water and brilliant sunsets. Its classic old world elegance pervades the eight guest rooms; inside and open-air terrace dining as well as the top floor ocean outlook Casa Blanca Panoramic Bar. Xanadu now serves as a comfortable place to stay, eat, drink and relax after a day at the beach, on the links or sea.

“Playing Varadero with the beach at your side, the warm sun shining, a fine Cuban cigar in one hand and freshening Atlantic Ocean breezes—It doesn’t get much better,” said Jose Tovar Pineda, general manager of the Varadero Golf Club in Cuba.

Varadero, a barrier beach peninsula is a two-hour drive east of Havana. It incorporates a well-designed government created resort with contemporary hotels on dazzling white sand beaches. Key West, Florida is only 90 miles away.
Travelers flock to the destination for cost-effective all-inclusive vacations. Cuban and foreign investor joint venture hotels have been added over the last 20 years. The resort offers attractive, clean and well-maintained lodging with excursions and activities including golf. One of these, Las Américas Meliá, a 5-Star (Cuban rated), 340 room, all-inclusive beachfront hotel with six restaurants and five bars is adjacent to Varadero Golf Club.

Cuba has an abundance of beautiful white sand beaches. Gorgeous beach shared by Xanadu and Las Americas Hotel at Varadero.
(Photo by: Howie Kastner)
Palm trees sway on the Cuban beaches.

The rest of the world has been free to visit, vacation and enjoy the heavenly climate and unique culture in Cuba for sometime. Canadians and Europeans accounted for the majority of travelers in 2009.  Many also traveled from Mexico, South and Central America and Asia.

The benefits of U.S. free travel and trade with Cuba would be monumental, good for Cuban and U.S. economies but also for improving each country’s quality of life, status and stability in the region.

Mountains and undeveloped country are plentiful throughout Cuba

Cuba’s Tourism Minister, Manuel Marrero, publicly announced at the May 2010 Cuba Tourism International Fair in Havana, that, “[The] government has approved a policy that permits real estate development associated with tourism, fundamentally golf courses, marinas and other investments.”

The Minister’s new policy notice is strategic and signifies the clearing of an important hurdle. Long term leasing of land in tourist zones makes way for expected joint venture-foreign investor golf community projects to move forward. The new policy, said Marrero, “Would enable Cuba’s entrance into new segments and the realization of investments in areas with tourism potential that have yet to be exploited.”

In 2007 Cuba solicited foreign companies to submit proposals for ten golf courses. They are now considering eleven submitted plans for golf courses with hotels, villas, and residential developments. None have yet received final approval.

The Shape of Things to Come
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, about the size of Pennsylvania--750 miles long east to west and 60 miles wide--with a population of 11 million. But there are currently only 27 holes to play on the entire island.

Currently there are only 27 available to play on the entire island...but, hopefully this will change soon.
(Top Photo by: Howie Kastner)

That will change, but future tourism development will need to be in equilibrium with Cuba’s aspiration for an egalitarian society and foreigners’ wishes to own a bit of an island paradise.

Tourism is already its most lucrative business and further developing the industry makes sense for cash poor Cuba. In 2009, 2.4 million travelers visited, contributing more than $2 billion, 20% of its foreign exchange. The U.S. International Trade Commission expects up to 1 million U.S. visitors in the first year after the travel ban is lifted. Cuba agrees and sees the number being 3 million in five years.

The infrastructure for such an influx currently does not exist. This March Marrero told tourism representatives at the U.S. Cuba Travel Summit in Cancun, Mexico that Cuba is set to expand its present capacity of 50,000 rooms by adding 20,000, with construction on nine hotels scheduled to begin this year.

At present most Americans cannot legally travel to or trade with Cuba because of a 48- year old embargo. Although no exports from the island come into the U.S., American exports to Cuba in 2008 totaled $801 million, primarily agricultural and medical. According to U.S. government sources it is the fifth largest supplier, at 6.3% of the total behind Venezuela 29.8%, China 11.8%, Spain 10%, Canada 6.4%.

Officially lifting the U.S. travel ban and trade embargo may now have more impetus than ever before. The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (HR 4645) presently in the U.S. House of Representatives has strong support. Passage would free restrictions on American travel to and from Cuba and liberalize trade.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D, ND) introduced the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act” (S 428) in the senate last year. It had 39 co-sponsors. He told the Cancun Summit, “This is a 50 year old failed policy. Punishing Americans by restricting their right to travel just makes no sense at all.” A similar bill (HR 874) is pending in the U.S. House.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R, IN), a bill co-sponsor and ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was time to reconsider the U.S. economic sanctions: "The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests."

The capitol building in Cuba resembles that of the U.S. Capitol building.
(Photo by: Howie Kastner)
1950s autos are common in Cuba, some are used as taxis.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D, VT), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-sponsor of S 428, "has long been an outspoken proponent of ending travel restrictions on Americans who choose to travel to Cuba," said his press secretary, David Carle. Senate aide Tim Rieser added, “Senator Leahy believes that the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba is illogical and self-defeating. No legitimate purpose is served by preventing Americans from traveling there. In fact, it is in our interest for Americans to travel to Cuba, to interact with Cubans so they can better understand us and we, them."

In 2008 President Obama ended restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba and transferring money to relatives there. They had been limited to one trip every three years and now can travel freely.

Raúl Castro officially became president in 2008, replacing his ailing 81-year old brother Fidel, who had ruled Cuba for nearly a half-century before resigning. He has eased regulations that prevented most Cubans from buying cell-phones and other electronics, and from visiting tourist hotels. He has allowed more of the few with private cars to become taxi drivers, and has begun the process of permitting private farmers to work unused government land.

While political relations have not changed appreciably under President Obama, cultural exchanges of musicians are happening more frequently and the U.S has approved many new travel service providers.

"The Senate likely has the majority of votes needed to pass S.428,” said Rieser.
“The House appears to have enough votes for the bill to pass, but as a gauge of support Speaker Pelosi has asked bill co-sponsor Collin Peterson (D-MN) to gather 220 pledges (the bill needs 217 to pass) before she brings it to a vote."

On the surface, it would appear there is no better time, given the changes that have occurred in both countries, to pass legislation and lift travel restrictions and trade limitations – “except that at this point the political climate makes it difficult to get anything moved through the Senate without a supermajority needed to break a filibuster,” according to Rieser.

It may seem offensive that partisan politics, re-election concerns, or legislators’ inability to correct a policy that has proven ineffective for 48 years prevents Americans from freely traveling anywhere, let alone to a place so near our shore. But it’s particularly absurd when both sides of the aisle recognize it's in our best interest that all Americans be permitted travel to Cuba.

Music everywhere in hotels, restaurants and on the streets.

There is no question that changing the U.S. travel and trade policies would be a boost to America’s economic recovery, Cuba’s tourism industry and Americans wanting to visit or buy a vacation and golf villa. A relaxation of policies would certainly be a green light to Cuba’s golf course development.

Cuba is often described as a place where time has stood still. The media has depicted old Havana with torn up streets and sidewalks. Overall, that’s not the way it is. There is a flavor of the 1950s. The cars, the architecture and to some degree the country are lost in time, trapped in the mid-20th century. But many of the older classic architecture buildings have been restored and look almost new.

In other respects, it is modern. Most tourist facilities--hotels, marinas, and restaurants--are at worst only a few years old and compare well to any in the Caribbean.

Viva Libre--Living Free

It is a place of beautiful, unspoiled beaches, the world’s best if most illusive cigars and music everywhere, combining lively African and Spanish rhythms. The climate is tropical, moderated by northeasterly trade winds. The sun-drenched land with a romantic revolutionary past mixes passionate people, communist rule and magical images for U.S. travelers who dream of one day visiting the forbidden island.

Cuba: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow. Click here to read more.

Cuba is a land of magic, music, mystery and romance, perhaps more so than any other in the region. It offers more to visitors than beautiful sandy beaches, palm trees and blue seas. And someday soon options will hopefully include multiple golf courses in various locations throughout the island.

(Click Here to Read More About Golf in Cuba - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow)

Bill Nestor writes about travel, golf and lifestyle from his home in Vermont.