As every action is logically followed by a reaction, at the peak of the Cuban tourism high-season (November-April), with hopes for a 17% improvement on the same period last year, the sustained increase in passengers traveling to the island is being backed by the rapid development of air transport operations and gradual progress in securing investment projects to optimize infrastructure conditions.
In this regard, the President of Cuba’s Civil Aviation Institute (IACC), Alfredo Cordero, noted that an increasing number of airlines are flying direct to the island’s ten international airports. At the end of 2016, 80 airlines were serving the island, of which 61 with regular flights, and 19 charters. This summer a new airline from Suriname is expected to join this number.
Airlines themselves have recognized how much swifter the process of receiving passengers now is on the island. According to Cordero, in the immediate future investments should be undertaken on a larger scale, as between 60 and 80 of the over 150 flights that arrive daily to Cuba, land at Havana’s José Martí International Airport.
As such, it is understandable that the infrastructure improvement process is currently focused on the capital’s airport, which saw an increase in operations of 24% last year.
Cuban civil aviation authorities have reported that, by the close of 2016, air operations had increased by 18%, as a result of the growing interest among global travelers in visiting the island.
Considering that average annual air transport growth in any other country ranges between 3-6%, the increase seen in Cuba is extraordinary.
After welcoming a record number of more than four million foreign visitors last year, marking growth of 14.15%, Cuba expects to receive 4.2 million tourists by December 2017. By the end of January this year, the island had already seen growth of 15% in traveler arrivals.
Cuba reached its first million visitors this 2017 on March 4, seven days earlier than in 2016. The Ministry of Tourism’s (Mintur) Marketing Director General, María del Carmen Orellana, noted the sustained trend of increased visitors and income for the island. While European emissary markets are expanding, the top emissary country of travelers to the island continues to be Canada, with a market share of 30% of vacationers.
Travel from the United States has also seen stable growth. In 2016, Cuba received 284,937 U.S. travelers, representing 74% growth as compared to 2015. Meanwhile, during the first quarter of the present year, the flight frequencies of certain airlines such as American Airlines and Jet Blue have doubled, with five and four daily flights, respectively. Other U.S. airlines that serve Cuba are Delta, Spirit, United Airlines, Alaska, Frontier, Southwest and Sun Country.
In order to offer travelers a direct route between Los Angeles and Havana, the first Alaska Airlines aircraft arrived at Havana’s José Martí International Airport in January, the eighth U.S. airline to begin operations with Cuba following the approval of regular flights between the two countries.
Speaking to Cubadebate, Juan Carlos Quintana, director general of the capital’s airport, stated: “The importance of the Alaska flight is that it comes from Los Angeles and allows those from the West Coast - both U.S. citizens and Cuban-Americans - to enjoy a nearby option to be able to travel to Cuba.”
Meanwhile, the Airbus 320, flying from Port-au-Prince to Havana, inaugurated flights operated by Haitian airline Sunrise Airways in February, with a twice-weekly frequency (Thursdays and Sundays).
Likewise, Holguín’s Frank País García International Airport has seen an increase in the provision of services to domestic and international flights. According to press reports, Carlos Pérez, director general of the Cuban Airports and Aviation Services Enterprise in the north eastern region of the country, “the reception and dispatch of aircraft with tourists from both abroad and from other Cuban cities” grew by more than 6% in 2016, attending to more than 803,000 passengers.
As reported on daily Juventud Rebelde’swebsite, “favored by the positioning of the Cuban tourist product in the European and Canadian markets, and the signing of new agreements with North American and Caribbean airlines, in said installation an average of 75 weekly arrivals are served, including from American Airlines, Silver Airways, Jet Blue, Aruba Airlines and Eastern Airlines.” Added to this is the construction of a modern air traffic control tower, over 36 meters high.
Recently, an Air Services Agreement signed between Cuba and Finland put the possibility of regular flights from this European nation arriving in Havana on the table. Currently, Finnair is the only Finish airline to serve the island, with a weekly charter flight to Varadero.
Kimmo Lädhevirta, director general for the Americas and Asia at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, stated that this bilateral understanding would help tourists, businesspeople and other interested parties to travel to the Cuban capital starting next November, with regular and direct flights.
Likewise, Lädhevirta has stated that Finland’s good air connections with the rest of Europe and Asia could contribute to increasing potential passengers to the Caribbean archipelago.
Among the latest airlines to begin operations in Cuban airspace in 2016, seeking to take advantage of this great period for international tourism, was French company Air Caraibes, which began flights to the island in December. This has facilitated the increase in the arrival of French visitors. So far this year, France has reaffirmed itself as one of the main emissary markets to Cuba.
The same was the case with Turkish Airlines, which operates multiple connections, with three weekly flights on the Istanbul-Havana-Caracas route inaugurated in December, using Boeing 777 aircraft with capacity for 349 passengers, thus allowing for increased visitor arrivals from different European, Middle Eastern and Asian cities.
Another resounding success of the Cuban aviation sector, which of course directly influences tourism, is the incorporation of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, one of the most modern aircraft in the world, to be operated between Spain and Havana by Air Europa.
This plane, with room for 296 seats, will fly daily to the island. A Mintur statement emphasized that, with this important step, “Air Europa reiterates its commitment to the destination Cuba and the capacity is demonstrated of the country’s airport infrastructure to assimilate new technologies that bring greater efficiency and comfort.”
These modern aircraft consume 20% less fuel and produce 20% less emissions, compared to other similar sized technologies. Due to their aerodynamic characteristics, they also reduce flight times and offer better entertainment options, including an onboard Wi-Fi service.
At the same time, the launch of this new Boeing is an important event not only for aviation, but also for Cuban tourism, which “demonstrates the favorable climate for the foreign investment and business process that is underway on the island.” With a total 153,340 visitors in 2016, representing 42% growth on the previous year, Spain is still among the main emissary markets of tourists to Cuba.
At the beginning of 2017, when Mintur estimated that a total of 164,400 more international visitors would arrive to the island than in 2016, Cuba had a total of 66,547 hotel rooms available, including 5,891 rooms which were repaired or refurbished in 2016. It is hoped that by December of this year, a further 4,020 rooms will be added to the island’s hotel capacity.
Mintur Director of Development and Investment, José Reinaldo Daniel, explained that a further 20,000 rooms are expected to be available by 2020, and depending on tourist arrivals, it is predicted that another 104,000 hotel rooms will be added by 2030.
Some of the most important developments in hotel and non-hotel infrastructure have been seen in Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, the keys along the northern coast of the country, and Holguín.
For example, Holguín, which will host the 37th International Tourism Fair, FITCuba 2017, from May 3-6, has 5,440 rooms in 21 hotels, and stands out for its natural and historical riches.
However, the famous resort of Varadero is still among the most popular, with 20,000 rooms in 52 hotels. For the ninth consecutive year, in 2016, this beach destination located in Matanzas surpassed one million visitors.