If we look at tourism in Cuba, beyond the charts and figures, we discover a challenge the size of a skyscraper: to improve products and services offered by the most dynamic sector of the Cuban economy, as the rate of international visitors to the island rises.
One thing is for sure, tourism is increasingly impacting other branches of the country’s economy, and we must keep up with its exponential growth. In this sense, it is worth noting that in 2015 the so-called leisure industry generated over 2.8 billion dollars in direct revenue for the country, while the industry’s sustained performance has seen it become the island’s second most important economic sector.
However, given the perennial link between the tourist industry and the frequently used word: quality, we must understand that the numbers also have a lot to say. As the end of the year approaches, a detailed analysis of recent figures, which have once again reached historic highs, is in order.
According to information provided by officials from Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism (Mintur), more than 4.1 million tourists are expected to visit the island in 2017, while over 3.7 million are scheduled to arrive before the end of this year (that is to say, over 175,000 more than in 2015).
According to Mintur’s Director General for Marketing, María del Carmen Orellana, by October 2016, the island had received 12% more visitors than in 2015, while the target of three million tourists had been reached 39 days earlier than last year.
She went on to note that while Canada tops the list for tourist arrivals to the island, Cubans living abroad, U.S. citizens, and visitors from traditional European markets (Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Spain), also constituted a significant number this year.
It is important to note, however, that despite over 70 years of uninterrupted diplomatic ties which unite Cuba and Canada, the island’s principle tourist emissary market, the number of visitors from that nation has decreased, given the devaluation of the Canadian dollar and strong competition throughout the region; with arrivals dropping from about 1.3 million in 2015 to approximately one million by October 2016.
Orellana explained that while arrivals by U.S. citizens – with the potential to be Cuba’s top tourist market - are increasing, the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States on the country continues to prevent them from traveling to the island for tourist purposes, like they do in the rest of the Caribbean. At the same time, Mexico and Argentina are Cuba’s top emissary markets for tourists from Latin America.
By October 2016, the island had seen an increase in travelers from the U.S. (up 167.8%), Germany (145.7%) and Poland (144.7%) as compared to last year, while those visiting on programmed tours rose 11.9%, and yachters by 333%.
In addition to the tourist sector’s 65,000 hotel rooms, there are also over 17,000 privately-run Bed and Breakfasts, while Mintur has some 20 contracts with non-agricultural cooperatives which, according to Orellana, contribute to adding options.
By the end of October 2016, there were a registered 3,138,000 B&Bs on the island, room rentals for which had increased 130% as compared to 2015; while Cuban travel agencies had established contacts with 441 private restaurants.
Although, as Orellana notes, 14 facilities were opened in 2015 at destinations such as Viñales (21 rooms), Cayo Levisa (21), Matanzas (82),Cayo Santa María (800), Cayo Largo (70), Jardines del Rey (1,606), Camagüey (43) and Gibara (12), offering 2,655 new rooms, investments continue to be made in order to expand the country’s hotel offers and renovate existing ones.
María del Pilar Macías, Mintur director general of Quality and Operations, added that the key challenge is increasing the country’s competitivity, based on quality and innovation, and a commitment to meeting international standards. This year investments have been directed toward hotels located in Ciego de Avila; Pullman Cayo Coco (192 rooms), Villa Iguana (120) and Iberostar Playa Pilar (194); several based in Villa Clara, such as Ocean Casa del Mar (424) and Villa Costa del Sol (8); Ocean Vista Azul (470), in Matanzas; and Havana’s Manzana de Gómez (200), set to open in 2017.
Furthermore, since 2015, Cuba’s leisure industry has been promoting the development of facilities associated with golf courses through the country’s Portfolio of Foreign Investment Opportunities. Of 13 projects already underway, two feature investment by British and Chinese companies: Carbonera S.A. and Bellomonte S.A. respectively.
Orellana noted that negotiations are underway with other partners to concretize projects, and “We are currently working with the Institute of Physical Planning to identify new plots with infrastructure to develop these types of initiatives.”
Meanwhile, special focus is being placed on nautical and diving activities, as well as cultural excursions, nature, and health tourism. The latter for example, includes Cuban medical products and services available both in and outside of the country.
At the same time, Mintur is preparing to launch a new publicity campaign next January to promote the island; embarking on an innovative advertising project tailored specifically to the Canadian market, featuring high impact media initiatives; and promoting a program on “the cultural heritage and diverse range of tourist offers” in the island’s patrimonial cities, geared primarily toward the Cuban market.
Regarding efforts to perfect specialized tourism, Orellana highlighted that paragliding licenses are being processed in Varadero while nautical equipment for excursions, fishing and diving, is gradually being updated.
She highlighted that three fishing boats were purchased in Varadero in 2016, while catamarans and dive boats have also been ordered for 2017. In the meantime, work is underway to acquire a glass bottom boat for Varadero and Cayo Largo, stated Orellana adding that two new Kite Surf schools have been opened in Jardines del Rey.
The Mintur officials went on to highlight the creation of new circuits, such as Harley Davidson motorcycles route, one related to music, and another to the recent history of the Cuban Revolution, popular with German tourists.
Also being launched at the same time are new cultural products which aim to contribute to visitors’ socio-cultural development, offering routes which reveal Cuban customs and tastes.
Cruise ships and flights
In regards to cruise ships, Orellana noted that arrivals this current winter season should double those seen in the 2015-2016 period. The expert added that some 46,000 cruise ship tourists will arrive to the island between November and December 2016.
“Not only has the number of ships increased, but also the number of cruise ship passengers,” stated the Mintur official. She went on to highlight that the 375.4% increase in passengers and fact that Havana represents the main port of call, “contribute to the capital’s development.”
This year saw arrivals by new cruise ship companies, including the MSC Armonia; Adonia, Europa II; Odissey, Saga Pearl II; Artemia; Saga Shapire; M/V Hamburg; Le Ponand; M/S Boudicca; as well as the return of others such as the Panorama II; Ocean Dream; Thomson Dream; MSC Opera; Sea Cloud; Star Flyer; Serenísima; Thot Heyerdahl; and Celestial Cristal.
Flights are another important concern for the sector, which according to the specialist, will continue to increase alongside the incorporation of new airlines.
In October 2016 alone, European firms Austrian Airlines and Azur Air launched weekly flights from Vienna to Havana, and Moscow to Varadero, respectively. Meanwhile, Pegas, also a Russian company, began to offer direct charter flights – every 10 days - to Varadero and Cayo Coco.
Furthermore, October also saw the addition of weekly Virgin Atlantic service from London to Havana, as well as flights to the Cuban capital running on Tuesdays and Saturdays, by Alitalia. In November, Polish airline Itaca launched a charter flight which travels to Varadero, Camagüey, and Holguín every 10 days.
Meanwhile, December is set to see the launch of three weekly flights to Havana by Turkish Airlines, and a twice weekly service operated by Eurowings to Matanzas and Havana; as well as Sunday flights to Cayo Coco, Santa Clara and Varadero by French company Xl Airways.
It is also worth noting that the last two months of 2016 have been marked by the establishment of commercial flights between locations across the United States and Havana, operated by American Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, Spirit, United Airlines, Alaska, Frontier, Southwest, and Sun Country.
High expectations for winter season
Regarding the current tourist high season in Cuba, which began last November, María del Carmen Orellana noted that every year this period commences earlier, “as we make progress we continue to receive more visitors,” and “set ourselves the challenge of promoting the island as a tourist destination offering more than just beach holidays.”
In this way, states Orellana, redesigning marketing, promotion, and publicity efforts through the use of new communication technologies, will help to show the world the security, tranquility, rich heritage, history, and culture which characterize Cuba.
Preventing illnesses and accidents, technological maintenance, increasing the comfort of rooms, upgrading hotel facilities are all vital to achieving this goal, according to Macías.
The sector official reported that work is also underway to diversify food offers, revive the art of cocktail making, ensure hotels are fully stocked and provide new recreation and entertainment offers.
Nonetheless, Macías noted that quality levels depend on the sector’s entire value chain, which includes non-Mintur entities and institutions. The expert concluded by highlighting the nation’s tourist facilities should soon be re-graded, following a thorough analysis of establishments which is currently underway.