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 Cuba interested
in joint ventures for building hotels and establishing charter flights.
"The second segment of visitors to Cuba will find
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
find that Cuba's
infrastructure doesn't exist in quantity and quality." Paldi predicts that
Americans are going to expect either a price reduction or an improvement in
quality, since Cuba is more
expensive than many other Caribbean
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 Cuba will take if Fidel does not
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: Cuba's growing dependence on Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's Marxist president who is a vocal
critic of the United States.
American tourists are currently barred by U.S. law from visiting Cuba. Washington established
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 Cuba. Unlike previous bills
addressing the needs of Cuban-American family members to have unrestricted
travel to Cuba,
HR 654 covers all categories of travel to the island.
The bill would also allow all U.S.
agents to compete freely and equally in booking trips to Cuba. The bill
reads in part: "The president shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or
indirectly, travel to or from Cuba
by United States
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 U.S. residents to visit Cuba. A
December Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of U.S. voters
desire normalized U.S.-Cuba relations.
It is likely that the first visitors to Cuba will be
fairly sophisticated tourists who have been wanting to visit the destination
for some time. Repeat travelers to the Caribbean
have been profiled as "island collectors." Travelers enjoy choosing
new islands when they return to the Caribbean,
while enthusiastically recommending their previous choices to friends. Cuba has been effectively out of this loop for
decades, and it's easy to imagine Caribbean enthusiasts from the U.S. saying, "As soon as it's open to U.S. travelers, I'm going to Cuba."
Carol Pinnel, owner of OR/WA-based Group Journeys, traveled
two years ago with Y'alla Tours. "We have a lot of interest in Cuba from our
clients," says Pinnel. "Many have traveled to Cuba on
humanitarian tours and are eager to go back." Although Pinnel would like
to recommend small, middle-priced hotels in Havana, she realizes that this wouldn't be
the right choice for many of her clients. "In Cuba, you would need to book the
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
city of Trinidad,
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 Miami. Before the Cuban
Revolution of 1959, Cuba was
somewhat of an adult playground, attracting visitors from the U.S. who enjoyed Havana's nightclubs and surrounding beaches. Havana is still 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 Havana, has more than 16 miles of white-sand beaches and
is the second most popular tourist destination in Cuba. In 2005, Varadero had 14,300
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 Cuba,
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 Cuba and
accounts for 22 percent of the island's 44,000 hotel rooms.
Not everyone thinks Cuba is ready for prime time. A
hotel executive speaking off the record says Cuba
is years away from delivering a tourism experience at an acceptable level to
the mainstream U.S. market
"They'll come in a wave once Cuba
is opened to the U.S.,
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 Cuba
suffered a dip of 3.6 percent in 2006, with many tourists opting for cheaper
vacations in the Dominican Republic,
Jamaica and Cancun. Higher fuel costs and reported dissatisfaction
with service also contributed to the decline. When Cuba
opens to U.S.
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
looking at Cuba.
Another executive with resorts in Cuba backed away from an interview,
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 Cuba," says Kevin
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 United
States should re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
48% say the U.S.
government should continue its trade embargo against Cuba.
46% would not at all be interested in vacationing in Cuba.
40% would travel there if the ban were lifted.