A Visit to Cuba

Author Joe Pike leans up against a classic American automobile during a visit to Havana, Cuba in 2009.
Author Joe Pike leans up against a classic American automobile during a visit to Havana, Cuba in 2009.

Why are you writing about a destination agents can’t sell yet? This was the question often put to us while visiting Cuba last month to attend the 15th annual MITM (Meetings and Incentives Travel Market) Americas—we thought it was a golden opportunity to travel to the only region that is out-of-bounds for U.S. travelers.

Our answer: Instead of waiting for the Obama administration’s green light, U.S. agents should start learning about the country now. Travel Agent was not allowed to take back cigars or rum from this Caribbean island. Instead, but we brought along tons of selling points to arm you with when the gates finally open.

Tale of Two Cubas

There are two sides to Cuba. First, there is the popular city of Havana, about 20 minutes’ drive from the international airport. This is where you will find Cuba’s best restaurants, nightlife, markets, historic buildings and bars. It seemed to have something in it for everyone—families, singles and younger couples—though many of the people we spoke with in the city said it’s best for families.

After two days in Havana, we took a nearly three-hour bus ride to Varadero. And it was well worth the trip. This isolated, unspoiled region compares to Havana like night and day. Varadero has some of the finest beaches and and the only 18-hole golf course in the country, perfect for both young and old romantics. Many of the resorts here are adults-only, so we recommend couples, especially since the journey to Varadero from Havana could turn the most, well-behaved child into “are we there yet” pests.

Author Joe Pike sips on some rum during a tasting at a Havana Club rum distillery as part of his visit to Cuba in 2009.
Author Joe Pike sips on some rum during a tasting at a Havana Club rum distillery as part of his visit to Cuba in 2009.

Sol Meliá Owns Cuba

Of all the big hotel brands in Cuba, Sol Meliá takes the prize with roughly 25 different hotels spread throughout the country with three in Havana alone. The best Sol Meliá properties we saw were Meliá Cohiba, Meliá Las Américas and Paradisus Princesa del Mar Resort & Spa.

Paradisus Princesa del Mar Resort & Spa is ideal for couples seeking a genuine five-star, all-inclusive option in Cuba. We stayed in a Gardenview Suite, #7102. It had a huge living room, bathroom, king-sized bed and—the room’s best feature—a Jacuzzi on the balcony! Agents should call Sol Meliá’s Leslie Moynelo, who handles all groups and incentives for the company’s Cuba properties. Moynelo would be able to give agents contact information specific to both Paradisus and Meliã Cohiba, the first hotel we stayed at in Cuba. Call Moynelo at 011-53-7204-6630, ext. 111.

Meliá Cohiba, a family/business hotel, is perfect for groups staying in Havana. It is just a short walk to some great restaurants and a $5 cab ride to other entertainment. We suggest booking any of the executive suites, which are on the 16th floor and above. We stayed in suites #1604 and 2104. Both have two bathrooms and a king-sized bed and views of Havana—not to be missed when the city is lit. As mentioned earlier,  Moynelo could help agents with contacts at the hotel.

Meliá Las Américas is a five-star resort with 340 rooms, including two Presidential Suites and 90 Bungalows. We recommend booking any of the bungalows for couples since the resort is adults-only. There are five restaurants, six bars and four swimming pools here. Agents should contact Golf Coordinator Dayanet Torrent Rodriguez (011-53-45-667600, ext. 6117, [email protected]).

Hotel Nacional de Cuba is perhaps Havana’s most popular hotel. The property in downtown Havana, close to some great Havana restaurants and bars, has 457 rooms, 15 suites, and a Presidential Suite. All rooms here are priced at about $130. Ask the concierge which rooms Frank Sinatra or gangster Lucky Luciano stayed in. Agents should contact Commercial Director Damian Fuentefria (011-53- 7835-3564, ext. 280, [email protected]).

Varadero’s Xanadú Mansion, with its elegant luxury, is the perfect place to stay for couples and families. Although it has amenities to keep the entire family happy, we suggest booking this for couples because of the romantic vibes of Varadero. Formerly a mansion, Xanadú has just six rooms. Everything remains unchanged at this 1928 home apart from minor additions like a bar on the top floor. You can book a single room for a mere $130 a night and a double room for $150. With the room fee guests gain access to the mansion’s 18-hole golf course, known to be the only professional course in Cuba. Agents should call Luis Lopez, food and beverage coordinator, at 011-53-4566-8482/011-53-4566-7388.

You have to tell your clients about the rum tours at the Havana Club factory in Havana. It’s about $10 for a brief tour, where clients learn the history of Havana Club rum, including its close ties to New York city during the early 1900s. Of course, the tour concludes with a sampling of some of the rum made there and a trip to the gift shop where you can purchase bottled Havana Club rum of various ages. Agents should contact Marta Hernandez Santana at [email protected].

From rum to mojitos, La Bodeguita del Medio is a bar where Ernest Hemingway used to indulge in the cocktail until late hours. We noticed a framed, hand-written note from the legendary author hanging over the center of the bar. It wasn’t a pullout from the epic prose Hemingway penned, but rather two lines on how he enjoyed his mojitos and daiquiris. Although this is somewhat of a tourist trap where bartenders are eager to push T-shirts and other gifts on customers as they enjoy their drinks, it is still worth going to.

Gangsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky too left a mark in Havana—at The Tropicana, the cabaret, they graced nearly 60 years ago. The legendary club, a must-see, opened in 1939. You get a stale cigar at the door and a cheap bottle of rum, and enter a circus-like atmosphere with half-naked ladies in elaborate costumes, muscular men in tights performing acrobatics and singers belting Cuban music. Other performers dance through plumes of smoke clouds from the hundreds of cigars being lit. It was touristy but nonetheless surreal.

For tips on preparing a Cuba itinerary, we met a Canadian tour operator, Craig Nattress, owner of Horizon & Co., who advises U.S. agents on putting together a quality Cuban itinerary. Nattress (011-416-585-9911, [email protected]) has been to the country over 20 times and can help you sell Cuba now. If visiting Cuba, we recommend our tour guide, Erich Ernesto Tellez Corrales, a guide for the Cubanacan Travel Agency. He can be reached at [email protected].

An employee of the Havana Club rum distillery shows off barrels of rum to tourists during author Joe Pike's visit to Cuba in 2009.
An employee of the Havana Club rum distillery shows off barrels of rum to tourists during author Joe Pike's visit to Cuba in 2009.

Truth or Rumor?

The MITM kicked off on November 18 with an opening reception at the Meliá Cohiba. Shortly after the trade floor opened up, we spoke with Ramon Alvarez, president of GSAR Marketing—the organizers for the show. Alvarez told us 70-80 buyers and about the same number of exhibitors was attending the trade show. Of the buyers, 12 were from the U.S. Although this was still a relatively low number, it was double the number of U.S. buyers who attended the last MITM Americas show Cuba hosted five years ago.

We had landed in Cuba with all the preconceived notions about the country—that it doesn’t have enough hotel rooms or brands Americans are familiar with, that there is a dearth of quality luxury resorts and that its hospitality industry needs training before U.S. clients start visiting.

Not Enough Hotel Rooms? We agree. There are about 45,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, most of which we were told are  located in Havana, and, according to Alvarez, the country definitely needs more. “I think [the Cuban travel industry] is a little scared about the restrictions being lifted because they may not be quite ready,” he said. “They are saying there [will] be 3 million U.S. visitors the first year when everything opens up, but I think it’s actually going to be way more. They really need more hotels when that happens.”

No Familiar Hotel Brands? We disagree. Any American who has traveled to the Caribbean, Mexico or Latin America before already knows about resort brands in Cuba, including Sandals Resorts and SuperClubs Resorts. In fact, many Spanish hotels like Sol Meliá and Iberostar Hotels & Resorts that are popular throughout the Caribbean were present at this show.

No Luxury Brands? We disagree again. Now, of course Cuba’s standards for luxury are different than ours since it is not as rich as the U.S. So, what’s five-star there may be a four-star or even a three-star in the U.S. But we definitely saw at least a handful of resorts that would qualify as a five-star here. We could imagine there are tons more like them.

Hospitality Industry Not Ready? We mostly disagree. Sure, the language barrier is quite apparent. It’s fine for the locals and even the cab drivers to not speak fluent English, but we found that many higher-ups at the hotels, including the concierge and in some cases the general managers don’t speak fluent English. However, the service is just as good if not better than any island we’ve visited in the Caribbean. People are nice, the hotels are clean and professionally run, and the service at the bars and restaurants is spot on. It’s evident that everyone from the housekeepers to the doormen to the bartenders is highly trained.