A Havana street. Photo: Gareth Williams
President Obama’s visit to Cuba last month was marked by a series of regulatory changes that now permit individual U.S. citizens to visit the island nation as long as they set up their own people-to-people educational programs. Previously only tour groups could visit using these programs.
U.S. banks are now authorized to process U.S. dollar monetary instruments (cash and travelers’ checks) presented indirectly by Cuban financial institutions, meaning it will be easier to spend dollars in Cuba. Even better, Americans can now legally purchase Cuban-origin alcohol and tobacco products (read: Cuban cigars).
U.S. travel companies also are starting to cut deals that will lead to more tourism to Cuba. For example, Carnival Corp. finally won approval from the Cuban government last month to operate Cuba cruises for its Fathom “voluntourism” cruise brand. Those cruises will begin next month.
Other cruise lines are either poised to begin Cuba cruises or are already going. While major U.S. brands still can’t offer sailings—at least not yet—other foreign brands are already going. MSC Cruises already has a series of sailings out of Havana and is ramping up capacity for more. Celestyal Cruises, formerly known as Louis Cruises, has seasonal sailings that circumnavigate Cuba and stop in four ports around the island.
But as I heard at last month’s Seatrade cruise industry conference in Fort Lauderdale, an influx of even more cruise lines to Cuba is going to require a major investment in infrastructure by the Cuban government to develop ports and docking facilities. It’s not like the entire cruise industry is going to stop going to the rest of the Caribbean in favor of Cuba. Indeed, most cruise executives say the extreme interest in Cuba will only fuel an overall increase in cruise tourism to the Caribbean as a whole.
On the hotel front, Starwood Hotels & Resorts announced it would manage three hotels in Havana—Hotel Inglaterra, which will become part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, Hotel Quinta Avenida, which will become a Four Points by Sheraton, and Hotel Santa Isabel, which will be renovated and become part of the Luxury Collection. Marriott, which apparently finally won its bid for Starwood last week, is actively engaged in finding hotel development opportunities on its own.
Meanwhile, 13 U.S. carriers have applied to provide direct flights to Havana from 20 U.S. gateway cities, as well as one-stop flights from three additional U.S. cities. In addition, seven U.S. carriers have applied to provide scheduled flights to the other nine international airports in Cuba from five U.S. gateway cities.
Major online booking sites, such as Booking.com and Expedia, are now openly offering Cuba hotels and resorts, while AirBnB and Homestay.com are actively promoting Cuban apartment and home stays.
Last month I received a press release from SuperClubs touting the availability of rooms at Breezes Varadero Beach, where U.S. citizens can stay while engaged in their own individual people-to-people exchanges.
Nearly 90 miles from Havana, Varadero Beach already has a number of all-inclusive properties with familiar brands that cater mostly to Europeans and Canadians. A few U.S. tour groups also use those resorts as bases for their people-to-people tour programs. But did this SuperClubs announcement mark the beginnings of mass “sun and fun” tourism to the island for Americans?
Well, not exactly. As a spokesperson for SuperClubs told me: “With Booking.com announcing this week the opening of direct bookings and Expedia on its heels, plus all the new U.S. airlift to follow, Breezes is merely one more hotel in the country ready to welcome Americans.”
The SuperClubs spokesperson went on to tell me the issue is hotel space.
Most of the big hotels are blocked for months or even years to come with tour operators, she said. “While it's already hard, it will continue to get tougher with the easing.” Another client of her clients, Homestay.com, also is offering accommodations in Cuba; “it’s just one more option for travelers to consider.”
It’s not likely that mass tourism to Cuba will happen, at least not for a few years, simply because the island’s infrastructure needs to be improved and expanded. And for now, people-to-people exchanges from tour operators will remain one of the best ways to visit the island.
Peggy Goldman, president and co-founder of Friendly Planet Travel in Jenkintown, PA, which was one of first operators to obtain a license to offer legal travel to Cuba in 2011, says travel to the island remains complicated, especially if you want to truly experience the destination.
“You can’t imagine the time and effort it takes to create these experiences,” she said. “It really involves structuring experiences where you get to be immersed in the culture and society and interact with Cuban people in many meaningful ways.”
Goldman believes true travelers interested in going to Cuba will want to dig deep, eat with locals, and experience something of the Cuban culture—and they will continue to do that on a tour. “A casual traveler can’t just hop on a plane and get a visa,” she said. “If you don’t have the connections to create that experience that for yourself, you’re going to be hard-pressed to have the experience that the law intended you to have.
“Cuba is a place where you have to understand what you are doing to go there. Even if you could come up with that full program yourself, you would really miss out.”
As for those Americans who simply want to go hang out on a beach, Goldman says there are much better all-inclusive options in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Mexico.
“The truth is people who want to experience an all-inclusive beach holiday will be disappointed with the facilities in Cuba,” she said. “Americans have many choices for beach resorts, so going to Cuba for a beach holiday is kind of silly…It’s still going to be difficult for an American without contacts to take advantage of the destination. Without doing a tremendous amount of research the average person isn’t going to be able to do this on his or her own.”
So the surge in travel to Cuba continues, but it’s not going to be without its challenges. But like many others, I definitely want to figure out the best way to go now, before major tourism development changes the island from what it is today.
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