Ex-Scots MP’s firm to build Cuba golf resort

Owners of a UK firm chaired by former Scots MP and trade minister Brian Wilson will be celebrating with huge Havana cigars after winning the right to build the first new golf resort in Cuba since the revolution more than 50 years ago.

Brian Wilson says his links with Cuba helped secure the deal. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Mr Wilson hailed the $350million - £227million – project by Escencia Hotels and Resorts as a sign of changing times in the communist Caribbean country.

It was over five decades ago that former Socialist Cuban leader Fidel Castro ordered golf courses to be closed down for being “elitist”, with only the rich playing on them.

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The new project will see a Tony Jacklin-designed course become only the second on the island.

Mr Wilson, originally from Dunoon, admitted the links he had retained with Cuba since his days as overseas trade minister for Tony Blair’s Labour Government had helped secure the multi-million pound deal.


He said: “Change is occurring in Cuba and, very properly, it is at the pace determined by the Cubans.

“So long as their priorities and safeguards are respected, a great deal is now possible here.

“This development will bring economic benefit to Cuba and create a precedent for similar projects.

“I am delighted it is a British company which is leading the way and hope it will encourage others to look at the potential for investment in Cuba.”

He added: “It is remarkable that it is the first golf venture in Cuba with foreign involvement.

“This is really a big deal as it is the start of joint venture to turn the country in to a golf destination.”

The former Cunninghame North MP admitted: “I have a long-standing interest in Cuba. When I was minister of trade I tried to normalise commercial relations and activities with Cuba.


“I still get on very well with them. I retained close links with Cuba. The Cubans appreciate continuity of relationships.

“To help to be involved in the delivery of this project is quite rewarding.

“The country is much more open to these kinds of development, having been cautious about it in the past.”

The Carbonera project, named after a neighbouring village just over an hour’s drive from Havana, will also offer foreigners the rare opportunity to buy property on the Caribbean island which is undergoing a period of economic liberalization.

The move is a sign of the changing times, as the government seeks new revenue sources to fund its socialist revolution.

Esencia has been working towards the project for seven years. It has secured a Joint Venture with Cuba’s Tourism Ministry to develop the 170-hectare site, which lies close to the country’s only existing golf course at Varadero, originally built in the 1930s.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said: “It will be a major complement to our tourism offering and the start of a whole new policy to increase the presence of golf in Cuba.”

There are plans to develop a network of around 12 courses on the island.


Esencia chief executive Andrew Macdonald said he expected building work to start next year.

The development will include around 800 apartments and villas, tennis centre, country club hotel, residential spa and aquatic activities as well as the Tony Jacklin-designed golf course.

Mr Macdonald said: “Golfers are renowned for travelling to new places but the problem in Cuba is that, with only one course, it could scarcely be marketed as a golf destination.

“After our project, there are others in the pipeline backed by companies from Spain, China and Vietnam.”

In pre-Communist times, there were at least seven golf courses on the island, frequented mainly by wealthy residents and US visitors, but Castro saw an end to this in the 1960s.

The Varadero club re-opened as tourism to Cuba took off in the 1990s, and some 200 rounds are played there each day.

Even Fidel Castro famously played a round in Havana once, taking on Che Guevara dressed in military fatigues.

Esencia is a British company that has been developing operations in Cuba for the last seven years.


The company has developed both a boutique travel agency and an import/export agency in Cuba while progressing the Carbonera project.

This will be the first opportunity for foreigners to buy property in Cuba apart form a short-lived experiment in the 1990s.

There is expected to be keen demand from Canada and European countries which are already Cuba’s major partners in trade and tourism.

Mr Wilson, born in Dunoon in 1948, was founding editor of the West Highland Free Press in 1971, a paper for which he still contributes.

He was a member of the SNP in his teens, then joined the Labour Party and contested the Ross and Cromarty seat in 1974. He stood also for other constituencies, Inverness-shire and the Western Isles, in the following two elections, before winning the Cunninghame North constituency in 1987. He successfully held the seat in the 1992, 1997 and 2001 elections.

As trade minister he took a great deal of interest in Cuba, which he visited on a number of occasions in an effort to improve political and trade links.