The final frontier?

The final frontier?
By Graham Norwood
Published: June 13 2009 02:35 | Last updated: June 13 2009 02:35


You learn a lot about modern Cuba by driving the scenic Via Blanca
highway between Havana and the north coast resort of Varadero. My trip
one late May afternoon starts on the wave-lashed Malecón, a 7km
boulevard separating the capital – both its restored colonial quarter
and its communist-designed tower blocks – from the Florida Straits.

Moving on from the sometimes dilapidated nearby suburbs into the outer
ones, each junction is lined with workers and schoolchildren sweating in
the 35ºC heat, trying to hitch-hike home to their villages. Soon, the
coast road changes from motorway to pot-holed track and back again,
ensuring the 140km trip takes a full two hours. But it’s worth it: an
occasional industrial plant, village or roadside bar, a few small oil
wells, then mostly blue water on one side, lush green countryside and
distant mountains on the other, and many fine, empty sandy beaches.

Entering Varadero, modernity immediately takes over. The beach is still
beautiful though packed, and bougainvillaeas line neatly manicured
lawns; clear views give way to the clutter of hotels, restaurants,
shopping malls and even a discotheque or two. This is Cuba’s principal
tourist resort and, perhaps more importantly, the place where developers
expect to gain permission to build the first holiday homes in the
country to be sold to foreigners for more than half a century.

If Havana is Cuba’s past, Varadero is a glimpse of its future and, with
some observers anticipating a more open foreign policy from the Raul
Castro government, it could serve as a template for other, similar areas
to be built out in the next decade.

Under communist control since its 1959 revolution – when almost all
private homes were seized and nationalised – Cuba has not kept pace with
the rest of the world. The streets are full of old European cars of
different vintages and dubious reliability with a few American classics
here and there. Finding a good restaurant is still a hit-and-miss
exercise and shops are surprisingly hard to spot, even in many
residential suburbs. But large numbers of children playing in the street
and an absence of obesity are reminders that falling behind the times is
not always a bad thing.

In real estate terms, Havana’s tourist-filled old town has been
meticulously restored but that is juxtaposed with its bland tower blocks
and, in the tree-lined suburbs of Vedado and Miramar, crumbling 19th and
20th-century architecture.

But change seems to be in the air. Some 2m tourists, mostly Canadians,
Britons and Spaniards, now visit Cuba each year, frequenting not only
Varadero but also Trinidad, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and Sancti
Spiritus, deep in the countryside. Thanks to relaxed rules on imports,
young locals now carry mobile telephones and watch plasma-screen
televisions; hotels advertise with “Wi-fi here” signs; there are
Benetton and Zara shops in Havana; and the occasional modern black
Mercedes can be seen among the city’s Lada taxis.

Relations with the US are also improving, with recently relaxed travel
restrictions for Cuban-Americans, early speculation that the trade
embargo imposed back in 1961 will eventually be lifted and smaller signs
of thaw, including news that the state television service will screen
The Sopranos and Grey’s Anatomy this summer. (The army also still has
its much-publicised base at Guantánamo.)

Then there is The Carbonera Club, a 15-minute drive from central
Varadero. A proposed collaboration between UK-based Esencia Hotels and
Resorts and the Cuban government, the oceanfront resort is expected to
include 800 villas and apartments, an 18-hole golf course, private and
communal pools, a yacht club and restaurants, with residential sales
kicking off as soon as the joint venture contract is signed. Savills,
sole marketer of the development, says the agreement is in place and the
announcement “imminent” although there have been unexplained delays.

“Carbonera will be an opportunity to buy not only a Caribbean holiday
home but a slice of history,” says the company’s David Vaughan. Prices
will start at $129,000 for apartments near the back of the site and rise
to $1.8m for seafront villas – comparable to “middle market” prices on
other Caribbean islands such as the Dominican Republic and well below
those in prime destinations such as Barbados.

The properties will only available for sale on a 75-year leasehold
basis, however, and it’s unclear whether the authorities will allow them
to become freehold. Questions also remain about whether deposits will be
lodged in Cuba or the buyers’ own countries. And club membership, with a
likely fee of $1,000, is mandatory, with the developer reserving the
right to reject applicants who cannot prove their bona fides.

In spite of the uncertainty, Esencia insists Cuba is a compelling
market. “Buyers will have so much more than elsewhere,” says Christopher
Lawton, director of sales for the company, which is also working with
the government on refurbishing some hotels in central Havana. “The
island is the size of England and has more culture than most other
holiday-home destinations. There’s the beautiful coastline and
countryside that you expect but also an existing infrastructure.”

The road network, though patchy, does criss-cross the island; the
national rail network is one of few in the region; and there are 30
airports, nine of them entry points, along with a cruise-ship port at
Varadero. The local population is skilled and educated, with a 99.8 per
cent adult literacy rate, and surprisingly welcoming to newcomers, even
those from the US.

“America may have a problem with us but we have no problems with
Americans; the more who visit us, the better,” says Jose Tovar Pineda,
director-general of Varadero’s golf course.

Many think his facility is a model that should be replicated in other
parts of the country and Pineda says he wouldn’t be surprised if Cuba
has 12 or more international-standard courses by 2018, each with hotels
and possibly private residences, as called for in The Carbonera Club’s
plans. “What we don’t want is people to come to Cuba, sit on the beach,
then go home after a week without having seen the country,” he says. “So
our resorts will be at historic centres across the country. That way
people get their suntan, enjoy our country and learn about the culture.”

Such ambitions would have seemed laughable five years ago and sceptics
still argue that the Cuban government could turn inward once more and
kill The Carbonera Club development at any time.

But optimists think it will be the first of many similar schemes – with
Qatari and Canadian developers already waiting in the wings – at last
breaching one of the final frontiers for private property.

The writer was a guest of Savills, tel: +44 (0) 20 7016 3740, / House & Home – The final frontier? (13 June 2009)

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