Dominic Walsh | TimesOnlines.co.uk

It is the island of which Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “It not only looks wonderful, it is wonderful.” It is famed around the world for its unspoilt beaches, the rhythm of its music, its staunchly communist regime and its political stand-off with the United States.

Yet today, with the ink barely dry on Fidel Castro’s resignation as President after half a century in power, Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism will announce plans to build that most capitalist of institutions - a luxury golf resort complete with multimillion-dollar villas.

A British company in which Sir Terence Conran is involved has set up a strategic partnership with the ministry to develop the first of several golf resorts on the Caribbean island. The €350 million (£275 million) development is being heralded as the start of a push by the Cuban Government to boost its economy through tourism.

The Carbonera Country Club Resort, which is due to open in 2011, will be developed by Esencia Hotels & Resorts. It will be the first big investment in Cuba’s leisure industry by a British company.

Esencia is part of Havana Holdings, which was set up in 2001 with the aim of turning Floridita, the cocktail bar in Havana once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, into an international chain under a franchise deal with the Cuban Government.

Sir Terence, a lover of Cuban cigars, is an indirect investor in the project through D&D London, formerly Conran Restaurants, in which he has a 51 per cent stake. D&D, which runs the Floridita restaurant in London, is a shareholder in both Havana Holdings and Esencia.

The entrepreneur is also involved through Conran & Partners, his design consultancy, which has been hired to design the 900 luxury apartments and villas on the 150-hectare site. The units, which will be marketed to foreign investors by Savills Real Estate, will cost from $300,000 to $2 million.

The resort will have a 150-room boutique hotel, a branded international spa, sports and aquatic facilities and an 18-hole championship golf course designed by PGA Design Consulting, which is linked to the Professional Golfers’ Association. It will have “at least one” D&D restaurant and a Boisdale restaurant similar to the two in London.

Carbonera is one of five golf projects in Cuba given the go-ahead by the authorities, three of them by Spanish developers and one by a Canadian company. Esencia is looking at nearby sites for one more resort.

At present, Cuba boasts only 27 holes of golf - a nine-hole course in Havana for foreign businessmen and diplomats and the 18-hole Varadero Golf Club in the grounds of Xanadu, a seaside mansion built by Irénée du Pont, the American chemical industry millionaire.

Andrew Macdonald, chief executive of Esencia, dismissed fears that the resorts would harm Cuba’s character. “Carbonera’s unique selling point will be its ‘Cubanness’,” he said. “This will not be like any other golf resort in the world.”

Esencia, which hopes to take a 75-year lease on the site after the relaxation of the ban on foreign property ownership, is also developing a chain of boutique hotels on the island.

Michael Phair, the chairman, said: “Before the revolution there were 20 to 25 million visitors a year. Now there are about two million, of which about 250,000 are from the UK. That’s why Cuba wanted a British company as a partner.”

This article about Sir Terence Conran’s plans is also a good read about these new plans for golf courses in Cuba.

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