Cuba ain’t ready for mass tourism
Cuba ain’t ready for mass tourism
Published: 10 January 2015
Salsa music and cigar smoke swirl round the grand courtyard of Havana’s
famous Hotel Nacional, and guests enjoy stunning views out over the
“Malecon” seafront promenade and the ocean beyond.
But inside, many of its rooms are shabby and musty, the WiFi is costly
and weak, customer service is often indifferent, and the food, while
plentiful, is generally dull.
Although Havana is loaded with charm, great music and architectural
jewels, there is a shortage of quality hotel rooms and restaurants, hire
cars, taxis and other services.
Tour operators hope a fledgling detente between Cuba and the United
States, announced last month, will lure hundreds of thousands of
American tourists to enjoy the island’s once forbidden fruits: its white
beaches, colonial cities, fine cigars and rum, and the vintage American
cars on its streets.
They also know that Cuba has to improve its offering.
“There are four or five really nice hotels in Havana which you can count
on for a really quality experience, and I think that needs to increase
five-, six-fold,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel.
He has brought around 5,000 people to Cuba over the last four years,
organising trips that range from short family visits for Cuban-Americans
to holidays designed for art collectors or cigar aficionados.
The Caribbean island was a favourite of American holidaymakers in the
1950s, but its tourism infrastructure went into decline in the decades
following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution and US economic sanctions
against Castro’s communist government meant Americans could no longer visit.
Even with a revival of market-style reforms in Cuba and investment from
Canadian and European hotel companies, the country is not ready for a
significant surge in tourism.
“If you think you can come for a luxury Caribbean vacation lying on the
beach being waited on hand and foot, it ain’t going to happen here,
honey,” Bonnie Schinagle, 56, joked over breakfast at Havana’s recently
restored Hotel Capri.
Schinagle, a special educational attorney from New York, was among a
group of 28 tourists from across the United States on a week-long
educational and cultural visit, now allowed after a relaxation of
sanctions in recent years.
They said they had a wonderful time but that Cuba is more for
adventurous travellers keen to soak up its unique atmosphere than a
typical holiday of beach, spa and golf packages.
The government says international tourism brought in some US$2.3 billion
(RM8.28 billion) in revenue in 2013, up from US$1.9 billion in 2009.
Over the same period, the number of hotel rooms rose by fewer than 2,000
to a total of 52,600 nationwide, although there were several thousand
more in the five-star category.
US sanctions still make it illegal for tourists to visit Cuba unless
they are Cuban-Americans or join programmes known as “people-to-people”
tours which are run by licensed operators such as Laverty’s and focus on
cultural or educational themes.
Of the roughly 450,000 US citizens who went to Cuba in 2013, some
350,000 were Cuban-Americans who typically have relatives here.
As President Barack Obama’s administration moves to dismantle sanctions
as part of its deal to restore ties with Cuba, many more Americans will
be allowed to visit.
Even when they are able to go, US tourists cannot access US bank
services or pay with US credit cards, meaning they have to carry cash or
They also find little Internet access, and have no roaming services on
their US cellphones.
“We always tell people, when you come down you’re entering into the dark
zone, and of course Americans aren’t exactly accustomed to that!” said
Cuba says a record of more than three million tourists visited the
island last year, up 5.3% from 2013.
Canadians have led the way in recent years. About 1.1 million visited in
2013, many of them skipping Havana and flying straight to Varadero east
of the capital for a beach holiday with a similar feel to other
Some travellers are drawn to Cuba precisely because it hasn’t mastered
“I always wanted to see Havana, and I wanted to get here before all the
Americans come!” said Ray Constable, a haulage contractor from London.
“I also wanted to see whether communism works. We’ve been all over, and
when you see how people live: it doesn’t work.”
Cuba’s tourism ministry said in state media last week that its record
year in 2014 shows it must “continue perfecting our work, raising the
quality of the services we offer”.
For now, tour operators are waiting for the US Treasury to publish new
guidelines for travellers that they hope could see US visitor numbers
shoot up. – Reuters, January 10, 2015.
Source: Cuba ain’t ready for mass tourism – The Malaysian Insider –