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Tourism in Cuba, Here come the Americans?

Tourism in Cuba, Here come the Americans?

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on January 14, 2015

Even The New York Times knows what will happen: Cuba could become, in 2015, one of the most interesting touristic destinations in the world, even for Americans, because even though they cant travel freely to the island yet, the announcement made the past 17th of December by Havana and Washington opens a new road for a fast increase in the number of visitors a year coming from the US.

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, broken in the first place because of their huge political differences for more than five decades, was very well received not only by the touristic businesses –which are the second most important source of income for Cuba, only below the exports of medical services-, but also by the entrepreneurs that live of renting real estate.

This is the third most common activity that takes place nowadays, only overcome by food processing and freight and passenger transportation. An increase in the total amount of visitors to the country would represent to renters the possibility of increasing the occupation of their houses and therefore, their income too.

With the start of economic reforms in Cuba, boosted by Raul Castro’s government, Enrique decided it was the perfect time to invest in his apartment and remodel it so that he could rent two bedrooms. He paid contractors (also private workers) and in a little more than three months the rooms were ready, each one with a private bathroom, TV, and air conditioning. The apartment is located in the downtown road Avenue 23- the most famous and visited road in Havana- and Enrique hopes to get back the 8000 pesos (cuc) that the reparation cost ( 1 cuc = 0,87 USD) in a short period of time.

“Hotels aren’t enough during the peak seasons, so tourists are looking for confortable rooms located in the main recreational places of the city. That is what I’m offering. I usually rent to Mexicans, Italians and Canadians. I have only received a couple of Americans, but I hope that with the conversations that Raul and Obama are having more come. Everybody knows that those people usually spend money, even more than tourists that regularly come to Cuba”, Enrique says, whom when has his two rooms rented he gets between 70 and 75 cuc a night.

For the Cuban touristic industry, an increase in the number of Americans coming into the country would mean a huge economic possibility, and at the same time, a very big challenge. In 2014 Cuba received the record number of three million visitors that gave the country over 2600 million dollars. From these travelers, about 650 thousand came from America, from which 550 thousand are Cuban-American.

The new influx of American visitors could end the phenomenon of the “seasons of tourism” (and we could start talking about peak season all year round); besides, in the new diplomatic scenario we could think about big investments of big American chains, such as Marriot or Hilton. The increase in the touristic flux will also have repercussions in air transport, because new connections could be made.

Would the Cuban touristic industry be ready for this new scenario?

Currently Cuba has more than 61 thousand rooms, distributed in 300 hotels around the country. From them, 63% are in the category of 4 and 5 stars. For 2020, the Ministry of Tourism hopes to have 85 thousand rooms available.

The main touristic poles are the Varadero spa, where 32% of these rooms are, then we have Havana with 23%, then Villa Clara (because of the hotels in the cays), 10% in Jardines del Rey, 8.6% in the middle and north of the country, and 8.2% in Holguin. Canada is still the most important market, followed by Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

When talking about the new law of foreign investment, tourism is an important factor. Authorities are looking to reinforce the diversification of the traditional offers of sun and beaches, through different proposals, linked with nature, culture, health, recreational navigation, events and diving. In order to do all this, it is imperative to have foreign capital.

Investments in 2014 allowed the inauguration of the Melia hotel in Jardines del Rey (1176 rooms), the Valentin Perla Blanca, in the Santa Maria cay (1020 rooms) and Residential Havana (612 rooms).

One of the most advanced projects is the one of golf courses. Cubagolf S.A is in charge of promoting the creation of partnerships that will build, administrate and exploit real estate buildings related to golf. An already set up partnership is the one of The Carbonera Gold and Country Club, a project of the British company Esencia Hotels and Resorts, worth 350 million dollars. The objective is to build a gold course, a shopping mall, a hotel and two thousand real estate properties in Varadero.

An agreement with the Chinese company Beijing Enterprises Holdings Limited was also signed, this project will take care of the Bellomonte area, east of Havana, to create another golf course. To all this you can add two similar proposals: in Playa Salado, west of the Cuban capital and in Punta Colorada in Pinar del Rio.

Moreover, cruise tourism is coming back stronger than ever to Cuba. In 2014, 141 boats came to the country, transporting more than 34 thousand passengers. These numbers would grow exponentially if cruises from companies such as Carnival or Royal Caribbean could visit the island. Projections for 2015 in this area include the return of the English cruise Thompson Dreams, that hadn’t been working in this destination for years; the Canadian Cuban Cruise calls our attention because it goes around the Cuban archipelago in a week; the StarClipper and Hamburg of Germany and the British Balmoral.

Airlines are taking more and more advantage of “destination Cuba”. Starting in September, Air China will have a flight from Beijing to Havana and back; it will be the first direct route between both countries. In the meantime, Cubana de Aviacion (Cuban Aviation) inaugurated a route to Costa Rica and a second one to Cancun. The interest is also reflected by the increasing amount of flights of Air Berlin to Varadero and Santa Clara; while Interjet created a flight form Merida and LOT Airlines; a Polish airline will come for the first time to the Santa Maria cay.

Beyoncé will be able to come to Cuba and bath in a Beach…. Without so much bureaucracy

The beaches of this Caribbean nation (considered among the best of the world) and hotels (the Royalton of the Santa Maria cay was chosen as the best all inclusive resort in the world, in the Travelers’ Choice awards 2014) have been vetoed for over more than 5 decades for Americans, because of Embargo.

In 2013, Beyoncé and his husband, the rapper and musical producer Jay-Z, where questioned because they came to Cuba for four days. Extreme politicians accused the couple of violating Embargo, which explicitly prohibits Americans to travelling to the island, for touristic reason. This accusation enraged Jay-Z who composed a song protesting about this topic. Finally the Department of Treasury declared that the travel was made with educational purposes, one of the approved categories by Washington and that the famous couple hadn’t done any “touristic activities” such as bathing in a beach.

This situation could change, although maybe not in 2015. If an American citizen wants to travel to Cuba he must sign up in a given “category” (religious trip, humanitarian, exchange, cultural, etc.) George W. Bush got rid of these categories while he was president, because he thought they hid “touristic excursions” to the island. One of the first measures Obama took was to bring these categories back, as a way of increasing the contact from town to town.

In the historic declarations of the 17th of December, Obama announced that during his administration he would increase the number of allowed categories to 12: (1) Family visits; (2) official activities of the US government, foreign governments and determined intergovernmental organizations. (3) journalistic activities; (4) professional investigation and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) publish shows, clinics, workshops, sports tournament and other exhibitions or competitions; (8) activities of support to the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or of educational or research institutions; (11) exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational material; and (12) determined transactions of exportation that can be subject to approval according to existing rules and guidelines.

Therefore, it would be less complicated for a group of Americans to organize a trip to Cuba; even, because of the Washington measures, visitors could use their credit cards in Cuba and import up to 100 dollars of Cuban products such as tobacco and rum. This still seems insufficient but it is a big step compared to previous periods.

However, to reach an absolute normalization in tourism from Americans and a real commercial relation with Cuba is completely necessary that the congress takes down Embargo. This possibility seems distant, at least right now, because both chambers are mostly republican; but the work between the cracks will make the process easier.

The 17th of December of 2014 split the history of the US and Cuba in two. This is a huge opportunity for the island to be one of the main destinations for travel and tourism in the Caribbean. “If Americans come with good intentions, well let them come” says Enrique as he receives an Italian who just got to his house.

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