Tourism official reiterates Cuban golf course plans

Without giving a hint when the government may give green light to the first set of golf course developments, Deputy Tourism Minister Alexis Trujillo reiterated that Cuba is planning to build 13 golf courses by 2020.

That number is down from two years ago, when Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced plans for “up to” 16 golf courses.

Plans for four golf resorts collectively worth more than $1 billion are ready to go. Last summer, Cuban officials concluded negotiations with four foreign consortia — which have formed joint ventures with Cuban state company Palmares S.A. — and last fall, the government published some regulations regarding foreign real estate ownership and the visa status of foreign real estate owners. According to people close to the process, other pending regulations are still holding up the projects.

Officials had been mute on the issue of golf developments since last summer.

“Commitment to the development of golf [in Cuba] is strong,” said the head of a Britain-based golf consortium in February. “It’s now a question of when. As it’s an important innovative strategy in the development of tourism in Cuba, it is crucial to get it right, and this takes time,” said Andrew Macdonald, CEO of Esencia Group, in a company press release.

One of the four golf resort projects entered limbo last fall, when Cuban law enforcement arrested the principal of Coral Capital Group Ltd., which had planned to build a resort just east of Havana, and closed the company’s Havana office amid an investigation into corruption. Neither the company nor the government has made any announcement regarding the investigation. Coral’s Website has been “under construction” since October.

As part of Cuba’s tourism diversification strategy, Trujillo also announced plans to build “several” theme parks, marinas and auto race tracks. He did not elaborate.

“We want to achieve that Cuba is not just seen as a sun-and-beach destination,” Trujillo said during the press conference at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, which was also simulcast to foreign reporters in Santiago, who were covering the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

He also said Cuba is planning to add 25,000 hotel rooms to the existing 58,000 ones by 2020. The new construction will be funded both with foreign and Cuban capital, he said, without elaborating. Until recently, practically all hotel construction was financed by foreign investors.

Trujillo highlighted continuing growth of tourism in the island. In 2011, the number of visitors grew 7.3 percent. He said revenue growth lagged since 2008, due to the world economic crisis. However, tourism revenues are catching up, rising 11.9 percent in 2011 and 12.2 percent during the first quarter this year, faster than the number of visitors. Visitor growth during the first quarter of this year, he said, was around 4 percent.

According to official statistics, the occupancy rate of hotels inched up from a low 44.8 percent in 2010 to 46.8 percent in 2011.

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