José Manuel Antunes states that Cuba is already the main tourist destination in the Caribbean, and its greatest treasure is its people. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

José Manuel Antunes has been visiting Cuba for almost three decades. Beyond Caribbean beaches, the Portuguese economist likes the people of this region, and in particular, the people of this island.

“There’s sun and sea in Portugal, too, in Cancun and the Dominican Republic, but the people of Cuba are special: cultured, supportive, proud, friendly. Thanks to the Revolution, they are well-educated and you can talk to them about anything,” he tells Granma International.

The director general of Sonahndo, a tour operator specialized in organizing trips for Portuguese tourists to Cuba, “It’s been a good experience, which began with a personal liking and ended up with me advising the visits of a multitude of people.”

From 1995 to date, the agency headed by Antunes has transported more than 200,000 passengers from the European country to Cuba. Although not among the top five European markets for tourists to the island (Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain), Portugal is one of the most traditional.

According to the businessman, the preferred Cuban tourist destinations among Portuguese are Varadero and Jardines del Rey, to where they fly directly, and Havana, to which they arrive with a layover in Madrid, Amsterdam or Paris. “Some come to Cayo Largo and Holguín, but not on a massive scale,” he explains.

How did your approach to Cuban tourism begin?

After getting to know the Cuban society, I participated in the purchase made by my company of 40 seats on a flight of the Cubana de Aviación airline, which started flying to London in 1989. That way, we managed to get that route diverted via Lisbon to bring more Portuguese tourists.

At the same time, we were able to be at the inauguration of the first Iberian hotel in Cuba and we set up an office in Havana in 1991.

In 1994 I came on vacation with my family. Then, I had the idea of organizing more flights to come here, but from Portugal, such a small country, that was very complicated.

Photo: Granma

Beginning the following year, our presence on the island was consolidated. In the summers of 1995 and 1996, we were able to dominate the destination of Varadero. We had the largest number of clients there, because at that time the Canadians were not in the habit of coming.

Have you seen advances in the Cuban tourism sector lately?

There has been huge development, mainly in terms of accommodation capacity. We can talk about times when there was only one hotel in Varadero, the main sun and beach destination in the country, and today there are more than 50. Tourism has totally changed.

Before, for example, the keys did not exist as tourist destinations and the reconstruction of the city of Havana began, which has become a matter of remarkable cultural importance. I think that in a few years the capital will be even better. That fills me with joy, because it is a city that I really like.

It is also striking how quickly the works are being built, and their volume. It’s honestly momentous.

Do you think this is because, as many people say, Cuba is currently in fashion, or does Cuba have the potential to grow and maintain itself as a major tourist destination?

In my opinion, Cuba is already the main destination in the Caribbean and its greatest treasure is its people. This island is different from the rest of the region. The way Cubans talk and understand each other is unique. In addition, they have a very rich cultural tradition.

Especially those who belong to my generation, that of the 1960s or 70s, who experienced the epics of Fidel and Che Guevara, have a romantic, revolutionary sentiment. Beyond the excellent beaches and remarkable hotel infrastructure that the archipelago has, that is what often motivates one to visit.

What do you think of the specialized sector of Cuban tourism, of those with whom you must continuously do business?

It could be much better, but I recognize that, with all the problems that Cuba has, mainly caused by the U.S. blockade, the best that can be is done. There is much friendship, solidarity and the desire to do well, which is the most important thing.