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On the Brink of TourismApril 23, 2007 By: Mark Rogers Travel Agent
Is Cuba ready for an influx of tourists from the U.S.?
For decades Cuba has been a popular package destination for budget-minded tourists from Canada and Europe. As the winds of politics change direction in Washington, there's speculation that it's only a matter of time before the island will once again be open to travelers from the U.S. If this comes to pass, can Cuba's hotels, services and infrastructure meet the demands and expectations of U.S. travelers?
"I think we should first determine who is the potential
visitor," says Ronen Paldi, president of Y'Alla Tours. "The first and
bigger segment will be the resort market." Paldi notes that GoGo and Apple
Vacations and other major players in the field will find
in joint ventures for building hotels and establishing charter flights.
"The second segment of visitors to
it challenging," says Paldi. "These are the Americans who want to
experience first-hand the island's history, culture and music. They're going to
infrastructure doesn't exist in quantity and quality." Paldi predicts that
Americans are going to expect either a price reduction or an improvement in
expensive than many other
Setting the Stage for Change
Last year, there was a maelstrom of conjecture when Fidel
Castro underwent emergency surgery at the age of 79. Fidel temporarily handed
over power to his 75-year-old brother Raul, the country's defense minister.
Months have gone by without Fidel returning to govern the island (Fidel has
called the shots for more than 47 years). There's much speculation in the
country and around the world about what steps
return to power.
"With regime change, we'll see simultaneous price reductions
and improvements," says Paldi. "Raul was much in favor of adopting
the Chinese model of opening the country for business. There are some
indications Raul is moving in that direction, since he's replaced key
people." Paldi does point to one potential problem:
critic of the
American tourists are currently barred by
the travel ban more than four decades ago in an attempt to isolate Castro's
communist government. In 2004, the Bush administration carried the restrictions
even farther when it reduced Cuban-American visits to their relatives from once
every year to once every three years.
Last month, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Jeff Flake
(R-AZ) introduced HR 654 to Congress, a bill calling for an end to the
restrictions on Americans traveling to
addressing the needs of Cuban-American family members to have unrestricted
HR 654 covers all categories of travel to the island.
The bill would also allow all
agents to compete freely and equally in booking trips to
reads in part: "The president shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or
indirectly, travel to or from
citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such
With the recent elections giving Democrats control of
Congress, and the fact that an ailing Fidel Castro appears to be passing power
onto his brother, many observers say the bill has great prospects for passing
with strong bipartisan support. It has already gained bipartisan co-sponsorship
from more than 60 representatives. Passing the bill would signal the beginning
of the end of the full embargo, although observers predict strong opposition,
as well as the possibility of a presidential veto.
There's a tremendous amount of pent-up demand from
desire normalized U.S.-Cuba relations.
It is likely that the first visitors to
fairly sophisticated tourists who have been wanting to visit the destination
for some time. Repeat travelers to the
have been profiled as "island collectors." Travelers enjoy choosing
new islands when they return to the
while enthusiastically recommending their previous choices to friends.
decades, and it's easy to imagine Caribbean enthusiasts from the
Carol Pinnel, owner of OR/WA-based Group Journeys, traveled
two years ago with Y'alla Tours. "We have a lot of interest in
clients," says Pinnel. "Many have traveled to
humanitarian tours and are eager to go back." Although Pinnel would like
to recommend small, middle-priced hotels in
the right choice for many of her clients. "In
deluxe hotels in order to get the services most Americans require, such as
air-conditioning, reliable electricity and food service, as well as Internet,
which most clients now require when they travel."
In her travels around the island, Pinnel found the roads
well paved and with little traffic. "I would recommend that travel agents
encourage their Cuba-bound clients to make sure they get out and explore beyond
the major tourist areas," says Pinnel. "I especially recommend the
which has great Colonial architecture and beaches." Pinnel says she found
no anti-American sentiment during her visit.
Cuban Hotels and Resorts
the biggest island in the Caribbean and just an hour's flight from
Revolution of 1959,
somewhat of an adult playground, attracting visitors from the
country's biggest draw, primarily because of its culture, people and atmosphere
of a city caught in time, with '50s-era American automobiles cruising past
buildings crumbling from neglect.
The resort area of Varadero, 56 miles east of
is the second most popular tourist destination in
rooms, up from 8,000 rooms in 1994.
"Unlike other parts of the island, Varadero has
excellent infrastructure, especially in its transfers from the airport to the
hotels," says Paldi.
SuperClubs and Sandals have been a presence on the island
for years, while recognizable European brands with a strong European market to
draw upon have been filling their hotels with Canadians, Italians, Spaniards
Sol Meliá hotel conglomerate has announced the opening of its 24th property in
and its eighth in Varadero: the five-star, 350-room Meliá Las Antillas. A total
renovation of the 397-room Meliá Habana, in the Miramar district, will expand
the hotel's Servicio Real executive service to 98 suites on the seventh,
eighth and ninth floors. Sol Meliá has a 37 percent market share in
accounts for 22 percent of the island's 44,000 hotel rooms.
Not everyone thinks
hotel executive speaking off the record says
is years away from delivering a tourism experience at an acceptable level to
"They'll come in a wave once
is opened to the
but the initial word-of-mouth about the infrastructure and service will be
Reuters estimates 1 million Americans would visit in the
first year after Washington ends the travel ban—put in place to isolate
Castro's communist government—and that there could be 3 million American
tourists visiting Cuba within five years.
would have to more than double its current capacity of 44,000 hotel rooms to
meet the predicted demand. A Florida International University study posits that
the number of hotel rooms could increase by more than 90 percent within four
years of a democratic transition, and by a further 100 percent four years after
Visitor arrivals to
suffered a dip of 3.6 percent in 2006, with many tourists opting for cheaper
vacations in the
with service also contributed to the decline. When
travelers, package tourists choosing purely on price will still flock to those
islands offering the best deals.
is still a loaded issue for many. Travel Agent recently asked an
executive at one of the world's largest hotel companies if they had their eye
given the new resolutions in front of Congress. The executive dismissed the
question out-of-hand, remarking that it wasn't legal, so of course they weren't
Another executive with resorts in
saying the situation is too delicate at the moment, and that it wouldn't be
prudent to comment on the current tourism picture.
"It's actually against the law for us to even have
internal discussions about doing business in
Wojciechowski, vice president of sales and marketing for AMResorts. "Once
restrictions are lifted, it's certainly a destination we'll be looking at."
In a survey conducted early this year, 1,005 adults from the
were polled by the Associated Press.
64% say they don't like Fidel Castro.
62% think the
48% say the
government should continue its trade embargo against
46% would not at all be interested in vacationing in
40% would travel there if the ban were lifted.