Despite strict travel restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, Cuba remains a destination committed to developing tourism. Andrew Doherty reports.
Trump has created an environment that is harsh, but I don’t think he’ll keep visitors away,” explains Miguel Gibson, chief executive and founder of Cuba Direct – a UK-based operator with more than 16 years’ experience selling the destination.
Speaking about the effect of the Trump administration, Gibson says although it remains legal for US citizens to travel to Cuba under the 12 visitation guidelines, these do not include tourism; a new law means US visitors can’t stay at more than 80 hotels tied to the Cuban military. These properties include the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, Four Points by Sheraton, Melia hotels and Iberostar Playa Alameda in Varadero.
Despite these setbacks, Gibson says Cuba is committed to maintaining its hotel development and aiming to build 100,000 new rooms over the next 12 years.
Melia Hotels International, a major player in Cuba, will open two new properties before the end of this year – the 934-room Melia Internacional in Varadero and the 802-room Paradisus Los Cayos in Cayo Santa Maria.
“The hotels are still coming, but development is going slowly,” he says. “As 90% of Cuba’s hotels are controlled by the military, we don’t know what will happen. However, 12 years is a long time and, if the next president is a Democrat, then the laws could change.”
As a result of cooling relationships with the USA and the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, Gibson estimates that global visitor figures have dropped 30% – a significant decrease when compared with the 4.7 million arrivals recorded in 2017, of which 600,000 were Americans without Cuban family ties. Speaking about the UK market, Gibson says it’s “holding on”, and that Cuba Direct sent 7,000 Brits to the island last year.
Despite this decrease, cruise arrivals are up. Seabourn, the latest line to be granted permission to start sailing to the Caribbean island, now offers 11-, 12-, and 14-day sailings, visiting five ports in Cuba. All voyages feature overnight stops in Havana.
Gibson says Canada remains the number-one source market, with the USA and the Cuban diaspora representing the second- and third-largest groups of visitors.
He adds: “Although we offer a lot of cheap holidays for the mass market, representing 80% of tourism in Cuba, we want to push our cultural offerings.”
Enabling more Cubans to make an income from homestays is an “ongoing” goal, says Gibson.
“We [Cuba Direct] are working on a system similar to Airbnb that will use SMS on a mobile phone to enable people without an internet connection to register their properties as casas particulares [private accommodation]. The government will also issue more homes with licences this December, and I expect there will be more than 3,000 on the market for 2019.”
Infrastructure developments are in the pipeline too, he adds. This includes a $1.3 billion Chinese-backed super marina project in the Pinar del Rio province and an upgraded cruise port in Havana.
Regarding airlines, Gibson says Virgin Atlantic was still operating its service from Gatwick to Varadero following news that Tui Airways is stopping its twice-weekly flight in October and will not be on sale next summer. Additional airlines still operate out of Europe, including KLM, Air France, Iberia, Air Europa (CA330), Air Canada (NA400) and Thomas Cook.
With the wave of development taking place across the country, many tourists fear the character of Cuba will be changed for ever. For Gibson, these claims are unfounded.
“I believe Cuba will be enhanced and its character complemented with improvements in service. Those visiting Havana will still be able to experience the centuries-old forts, all of which are protected and will continue to be protected by law,” he says.
“Right now, Cuba is diversifying. We’re not thinking about the end goal, but the steps towards achieving a stronger tourism offering. We’re not there yet, but we think it’s achievable.
“Cuba is a destination that should be welcoming 20 million visitors a year – we have great hotel stock with a lot of luxury on offer. But we must be competitive too.”