14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 17 November 2017 – Cuba’s northern keys are a tropical paradise that were forbidden to Cubans for decades. In 2008, in the midst of a severe liquidity crisis, the reforms of Raul Castro’s regime allowed, for the first time since the opening to international tourism in the ’90s, Cubans to stay in domestic hotels on equal terms with foreigners. Since then, the growth of national tourism has been unstoppable. Until last year.
“National tourism decreased by more than 90,000 vacationers in 2016, according to data from the National Statistics Office this autumn,” explains Emilio Morales, group director of The Havana Consulting Group (THCG), based in Miami.
The factors Morales blames for the fall are basically the rise in hotel prices that occurred the previous year as a result of the increase in international tourism and the increase in the number of trips abroad by Cubans.
“Cuba recently experienced a boom in American tourism, a market with much more purchasing power than the rest of the markets that send tourists to Cuba. According to official figures, 281,706 Americans traveled to the island in 2016,” Morales explains.
The response of the Cuban tourist market, 40% of which is controlled by the Business Administration Group which is controlled by Cuba’s armed forces, was to raise the price of rooms.
“My husband and I went to Varadero, Viñales or Trinidad at least once a month but since last August we have not been able to because all the prices have skyrocketed,” says Maria Eugenia, 61, who lives in Havana. “What we used to pay for the whole trip now is not enough for one night, not to mention transportation,” she laments.
“The hotels where prices have increased the most are those in the keys, those in Varadero and anything else along the coastline of beaches,” says María Eugenia. “Also, it’s not worth going as a Cuban because there is a lot of mistreatment towards the national client.”
One of the main attractions of the all-inclusive vacation is the formerly all-you-can-eat buffets, but now there are restrictions imposed, according to the retiree. “There is not as much variety of products and nor are they so free, because now they control the amount of main dishes (meat or fish) that each guest can eat and they give you a ticket for a certain number of drinks.”
THCG carried out a study on the lodging network in the Cuban tourist sector in 230 hotels and verified the price escalation since the US thaw. “The study showed a rise in prices in all categories, with the highest growth in five-star hotels, which went from an average of $186 a night in 2014 to $362 in 2016,” the report detailed. As these establishments are filled, foreign tourists who occupied them begin to demand rooms in lower category hotels, which also increases the prices of those tourist facilities.
The most surprising figures are seen in the four-star hotels, which went from an average of $111 per night in 2014 to $247. “The Saratoga hotel, one of the favorites of celebrities and politicians, came to be priced in 2016 at between $700 and $1,000 dollars a night, compared to $375 as a minimum a year before,” adds Morales.
This escalation of prices also affected domestic tourism, a sector that had grown exponentially after the thaw initiated by former President Barack Obama, which unlocked the sending of remittances to the island and helped develop the country’s incipient private sector.
“In a study conducted by THCG in 2014, it was found that 37% of Cuban-Americans who traveled to Cuba stayed at least one weekend with their relatives living on the island at a hotel, mainly in the tourist centers of Varadero, the Keys to the north of Villa Clara and in Guardalavaca, Holguín. This trend has increased in recent years, and it is currently estimated that around 45% of Cuban-Americans traveling to the island stay in a hotel with their relatives in Cuba for two or three days,” explains Morales.
An employee of one of the most prestigious agencies based in the United States that arranges travel to Cuba told 14ymedio, on the condition of anonymity, that the situation of national and international tourism “is critical.”
“I was in Cuba this November for the International Fair of Havana and the Cubans are asking for the return of tourism. But, the Meliá Cohiba was at less than 30% of its capacity, when last year it was full,” she says.
“With the increase in the prices of hotels in Cuba an excellent market opportunity is lost because once the tourists go to another place they do not return,” she says.
From 14 January 2013 to 24 October 2016, more than 779,000 Cubans residing on the Island traveled abroad, 79% of them for the first time. The official figures are misleading, however, because they count as still resident in the country any Cubans who have been abroad for less than two years. Even so, an increase in the number of Cubans traveling abroad is clear to see.
“So far this year, a 28% growth has been achieved relative to the same time period for the previous year,” Ernesto Soberón, director of Affairs of Cuban Residents Abroad, recently told Cuban television.
Morales believes that there are a variety of reasons for these trips abroad. “It is estimated that in the 2013-2016 period around 130,000 Cubans traveled for emigration reasons, while the remaining 541,000 did so for work, tourism and business reasons,” he explains. The researcher gives as an example the more than 100,000 Cubans who traveled to Mexico in 2016, “becoming the fastest-growing tourist segment in Latin America that visits Mexico by air, with a growth of 58% over the previous year.”
“The most popular destinations for Cubans are the United States, Mexico and the Dominican Republic,” explains Morales, who believes that the situation requires a serious analysis by those who develop strategies for the tourism sector on the island.
“It is evident that not having a balanced offer both with regards to price and recreational options means that the growing national tourism will satisfy its leisure needs in other markets. Without a doubt, Cuban tourists are discovering better options outside of Cuba’s borders,” he adds.
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