Negotiations with foreign investors about construction of up to 16 golf courses and condominium communities will begin in January, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told reporters at the National Assembly on Sunday.
Marrerro’s announcement, based on a decision by the Council of Ministers at a meeting July 16-17, reverts the freeze on foreign real estate buying and selling imposed by the government in 2000, after a short-lived experiment with condominium construction in Havana.
Specific regulations for the purchase and sale of real estate by foreigners will be published before the end of the year, Marrero said. The immigration status of foreign buyers, as well as the types of contracts and statutes regulating the joint ventures between foreign investors and state companies are “being analyzed,” he added.
The 16 projects “have already been approved by the Council of Ministers, are in the process of implementation, and it’s being concluded,” Marrero told reporters, according to AFP.
Cuban development projects go through three stages — identifying a Cuban partner, obtaining approval of the foreign investment and tourism ministries, and finally getting the go-ahead from the Council of State.
Marrero said of the 16 golf course projects approved by the Council of Ministers, negotiations on four are “very advanced.” They include one project in the province of Holguín, one in Pinar del Río, and two located between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.
The new regulations could spawn an unprecedented construction boom of as many as 7,000 golf course condominium units in 13 developments, predicts Tony Zamora, a Miami real estate lawyer who has researched foreign investment in Cuba for more than 10 years.
The new regulations will also open up opportunities for construction of marina-only condominium projects, Zamora suggests, adding that the government is pondering as many as six residential developments connected to marinas. This could add another 4,000 units, he believes.
The government designated about 80 sites as suitable for golf course development, according to Zamora. Over the past five years, at least a dozen foreign investor groups have lined up projects.
Under the new regulations, the government will probably offer foreigners an “usufructo” model, under which they can own property under lifetime leases, 50 years and up. The usufructo model would allow foreigners to buy, mortgage and sell properties, or pass them on as an inheritance during the life of the lease.
Another set of regulations that could be included in the law package concern issues such as length of stay for foreign part-time residents, and import and export rules for residents’ personal goods, such as furniture or automobiles. Currently, foreigners are allowed to stay up to six months at a time.
This would be the government’s second run at residential real estate construction for foreigners, after it aborted a first run in the late 1990s.
The foreign investment law of 1995 specifically allows the sale of real estate to foreigners for tourism purposes and offices. However, the government has been struggling for years to establish the ground rules for foreign real estate buying, a delicate topic in Cuba’s egalitarian political system.
In 2000, the Cuban government poured cold water over a condo construction mini-boom in Havana, when it stopped all sales and bought out its foreign partners. According to Zamora, the problem in 1998-99 was that the government failed to put any provision against flipping in the contracts. Also, many Cuban friends and family of the owners ended up living in the new condos, which caused resentment among fellow Cubans.
Even so, some 400 new units in Havana were sold in a five-year span; most of them continue to be in the hands of foreigners.
The new generation of projects is different, because they are in remote locations, outside the big cities. This, in turn, might spawn another side business, Zamora suggests: The construction of workforce housing nearby.
The most public of the four most advanced investor groups has been Esencia Hotels & Resorts. The British company announced in late 2008 it wants to build a golf course community, the $400 million Carbonera Country Club Resort in Varadero. Carbonera is planned for 730 units, around an 18-hole golf course and marina.
Meanwhile, a British-Spanish group hired Foster + Partners, the company around renowned architect Sir Norman Foster, to design a 2,000-unit community near Bahia Honda in western Pinar del Río province, around three golf courses and a 200-slip marina.
Vancouver-based Leisure Canada is redesigning its master plan for a three-course golf resort with marina village at Jibacoa, 50 miles east of Havana, according to President and CEO Robin Conners. A later stage of the project will include cottages, Conners says.
Also, a privately owned Vietnamese company, Housing & Urban Development Corp. (HUD), reportedly is planning to build two golf course communities, including one inland, just west of Havana.