Cuba’s new come hither look

2012-02-03 08:09

The Arab Spring, changes in US policy and economic reforms at home are driving a tourist rush that is giving communist-run Cuba one of its best seasons.

Hotels are filled to the brim and Old Havana, the capital’s historic centre, is teeming with tourists from around the world, soaking up the warm winter sun in outdoor cafes and strolling through narrow colonial streets.

Along the nearby Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard, 25 buses are lined up on a sunny day, waiting to carry visitors to their next destinations.

At the Bodeguita del Medio, where American author Ernest Hemingway supposedly drank mojitos, almost as many people stand on the stone-paved street waiting to get into the jam-packed bar as are squeezed inside.

Says the manager of a foreign hotel company: “We are at capacity. The beach resorts, Havana city are totally full. In the interior of the country, there is nowhere to find a room, nowhere.”

Like most other people interviewed for this story, the manager asks not to be named to avoid problems with Cuba’s communist government.

Cuba registered its best year for tourism, with 2.7 million visitors, last year. Experts say current bookings suggest it will almost certainly beat that number this year.

Says the head of a European travel agency’s Havana office: “I think 2012 will be a very good year and I see real difficulties in how to organise and manage all this in 2013 and 2014.”

Tourism is a top hard-currency earner for the cash-strapped Caribbean island, with revenue of about $2.3 billion (R18 billion at the current exchange rate) in 2011.

Travel experts say there is continued growth in the number of visitors from Canada, by far the biggest market for Cuba, and rising numbers from countries such as Russia and Argentina.

This high season has also seen a resurgence in visitors from Europe, where numbers have fallen off in recent years, as many people who usually go to North Africa for a winter vacation are now looking elsewhere because of security concerns following the Arab Spring uprisings last year.

The political stability and lack of crime in tightly controlled Cuba are as attractive to them as the island’s beautiful beaches.

Says the travel agency head: “It’s just a sort of insecurity, especially in the German market. If there is a crisis somewhere, they immediately stop going. Cuba is viewed as safe.”

Says the hotel company manager: “You want security, that’s Havana. I would estimate that from France alone, tourism to Cuba is up 20%, largely because of events in North Africa.”

He says Egypt, where tour packages were comparably priced to Cuba and political unrest continued, is losing the most customers to the Caribbean island.

Cuban-Americans have been flooding into Cuba since US President Barack Obama lifted restrictions for them to travel to their homeland in 2009.

Cuba has not released its yearly tourist numbers by nationality for 2011, but unofficially 375 000 Cuban-Americans were said to have come to the island in 2010.

Mostly they stay with family members and are not the ones filling up hotels, but they do rent lots of cars.

“I’m having enormous difficulty finding places for my customers. It’s the Americans, they’re getting all the good beds,” complains a Cuba travel company owner.

Around Havana, it has become more common to see Americans on the streets and in restaurants, although they are somewhat isolated from other tourists because the new regulations require that they come as part of tours that are supposed to be educational and “purposeful”, not recreational.

Says a New Zealander: “I keep hearing there are a lot of Americans, but I haven’t seen that many around.”

In pursuit of what is known as “people-to-people” contact, they spend their days visiting museums, schools, hospitals and tobacco farms, with only a limited amount of time for wandering about.

Americans approached in Cuba to talk about their experience are reluctant to talk and, in some cases, defensive, apparently fearing retribution from their government.

Says an elderly man as he quickly walks away towards the safety of the Hotel Nacional: “We don’t want to advertise that we’re here. I don’t think that would be very smart.”

Cuba says that, excluding Cuban Americans, 63 046 Americans visited the island in 2010 – and that number is on the rise.
“I think right about now the American groups are starting to come,” says Tom Popper, director of US travel company Insight Cuba. He says demand has been strong and that his group has already brought or signed up 2 200 people for trips.
The National Geographic Expeditions website shows that it has 17 tours of Cuba planned from now through to May and they are all fully booked.

For Americans, the attraction of Cuba is partly that it has been forbidden fruit for so many years, Popper says.

But for them and others, President Raul Castro’s campaign for economic reform is also a draw card.

Under the changes, Cuba is moving away from its stumbling, Soviet-style economy into a communism where private initiative is encouraged and the role of the state lessened.

The European travel agency director says: “Many people are coming because they want to see Cuba as it has been and is – the old cars and that sort of thing – but they are also curious because they read a lot in the papers about things changing and they want to see that too.”

For those in the travel industry, Cuba’s success is a blessing and a curse. Sales are good and profits are up, but the demand has put a spotlight on the need to expand and improve the tourist infrastructure.

Cuba has invested heavily in building beach hotels, but in Havana and popular tourist destinations such as Cienfuegos and Trinidad, many more rooms are needed.

“We need more hotels and we need more four-star hotels,” says the travel agency director. “Business will be good for everybody because people are coming in, but everybody will have to fight for rooms. And I suppose prices will go up.”

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