Ivan Garcia, 10 January 2016 — One month before their trip, José María, his wife and two sons from Valencia Spain made reservations through the internet for two rooms at the Hotel Riviera, which faces Havana’s seaside drive, the Malecón.
“There was no way to rent a car,” says José María as he sips papaya juice in the cafe of the Inglaterra hotel in the heart of Havana. “Our plan was to spend six days in the capital and a weekend in Varadero. Family friends had told us all about the island’s climate, its natural beauty and especially the people. But the reality was quite different.”
He lists the problems. “The airport was a nightmare. It was filthy, with a terrible odor, and getting through customs was impossibly slow. We could not rent a car at the terminal or in any part of the city. It cost us forty-five euros just to take a taxi to the hotel. The driver didn’t even turn on the taxi meter. The Riviera had reserved a room for us that had only three beds because they thought we were travelling with small children. There were no other rooms available. It was infested with roaches and the air conditioning barely worked,” notes the Spanish tourist.
The next morning they moved to the Inglaterra. “The service was just as bad and we had to change rooms twice,” says José María “In one room the water heater didn’t work and in another the TV was broken. And what you see outside the hotel is awful. Except for a portion of Old Havana, which is beautifully restored, the city is falling apart. Most people are friendly, but it’s frightening to see how many prostitutes and shady characters there are per square meter.”
The hotel at Varadero was better. “But the food in the ’all included’ plan was disgusting. The staff had no motivation. It was as though they were being punished,” says José María.
Experiences like those of this Spanish tourist and his family in Havana and Varadero occur often in Cuba. Tourism is the island’s third largest source of hard currency, behind the export of medical services and remittances from overseas.
In 2014 remittances totaled 2.7 billion dollars. Cuba has 62,000 hotel rooms and an additional 19,000 rooms in private homes and hostels.
After the surprise announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December of 2014, the influx of tourists grew dramatically. Estimates are that 3.5 million people will have visited Cuba by the end of 2015, an 18% increase over the previous year.
The regime is probably taking in more than 3.2 billion dollars. The outlook for tourism in Cuba is promising.
Projections are that 23,000 rooms will have been built by 2020. Gaviota, a corporation headed by military officials, alone plans to build 14,000. Currently, Gaviota is the fourth largest hotel chain in Latin America and is predicted to be the second largest in four years.
But the biggest challenge to the growth of tourism on the island is not a shortage of rooms. It is more an issue of poor management, lack of supplies, low productivity and lousy service.
Add to these problems an infrastructure that has not been adequately maintained. Ariel Terrero, a government journalist who reports on economic issues, wrote a short piece for Cubadebate on the shortcomings of the tourism industry in Cuba.
A university professor who specializes in tourism told Terrero that, in spite of the increase in the number of visitors, hotel occupancy is less than 60%. Why then are there no available rooms in what is currently peak season in Havana and Varadero?
It is a management issue. According to the reporter, a large number of rooms at the Havana Libre hotel are closed for renovation.
As Jorge, a receptionist, points out, “In hotels that have been in operation for at least ten years, fifteen to twenty percent of rooms are not being used because of repairs that take months to complete.”
Though the state has designated tourism a high-priority industry, the companies in charge of maintenance do not have the authority to import fittings, equipment or supplies.
“The money that the tourism sector brings in is controlled by the state. Hotels where there is a foreign partner or that are owned by reputable companies such as Melia operate with more independence,” says Sergio, the head of a resort maintenance crew. “The rest must get state authorization. And bureaucracy is so widespread that it takes up to ten months to repair the air conditioning or plumbing system for a group of rooms.”
Does Cuba have an adequate infrastructure to deal with a hypothetical growth of five million tourists in 2016 and 2017.
“I don’t think so,” says a former manager of the Gran Caribe corporation. “What happens is that in Cuba they only think about construction, not about allocating resources for future maintenance. A hotel is more than a room, breakfast and maybe a meal. These must be complemented with car rental services, high-speed internet, cultural programs within the facility and outside activities such as visits to museums, cabarets and historical sites.”
In a city like Havana — with bad roads that make it difficult to drive without GPS, without proper signaling at intersections, with few and slow internet connections and with a poor public transport system — the former director believes “it is difficult to get return visitors. Because the crux of this business is not to get people to come once; it is to get them to come back.”
If you go to sites like Tripadvisor, one of the things you notice is the large number of negative experiences reported by foreigners who have visited the island. Others like the Spanish tourist José María have already erased Cuba from their tourist maps.