14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, April 1, 2019 — “Things never slowed down. All day long the place was full of tourists. Now, if there are one or two, it’s a lot,” laments Sara, an employee at a privately owned cafe near the location where, until March 22, the Viazul bus company had its offices in Havana. The agency’s relocation has been a severe blow to businesses in this part of Nuevo Vedado.
“The economy of the entire neighborhood revolved around Viazul because there was nothing else here to attract tourists,” explains Sara, who notes that in the past week she has sold “very little food and almost no beverages” in the small cafe that also sells takeout items. “If this keeps up, we will have to close,” she warns.
Created in 1996, Viazul is a subsidiary of the Astro Business Group, owned by the Ministry of Transportation, which provides transportation services to travelers. With twelve daily departures from the capital and three departures from Varadero, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba, the company handles more than 8,000 customers per month, most of them foreign tourists. Tickets can only be purchased with hard currency.
The Viazul station had always been located on 26th Avenue, near the Zoological Garden, before moving to the Central National Bus Station on Independence Avenue, a few yards from the Plaza of the Revolution. Until then, the central station had only been used by the state-owned transportation company Astro, which charges for its services in Cuban pesos.
“There were several short-term rental properties in this neighborhood which were doing well because they had customers who wanted to spend the night here before catching the early bus the next day,” explains Luís Alberto, who was born in the 26th Street vicinity. “Many residents also provided private taxi service for travelers, but now all that is up in the air.”
“This is the kind of decision that is made at the top without consulting the local community and that ends up causing a lot of difficulties and problems,” adds the young man. “There are people who are already losing a lot of money.”
A travel agency that provides trips to Isla de la Juventud is planning to move into Viazul’s former location, where passengers will be able to buy a bus ticket from Havana to Batabanó on the southern coast as well as a ticket for the catamaran that will then take them to the small island. “But that will mean many fewer customers because most of them are Cubans and they don’t have as much money to spend,” explains Luís Alberto.
Viazul has a fleet of more than 90 vehicles, at least 75 of which are forty-seat buses, as well as 13 microbuses with ten to eleven seats, and four mini-buses with twenty-four seats. In contrast to the buses operated by Astro, Viazul’s vehicles have a reputation for being safer and more comfortable.
Last January a Viazul bus was involved in an accident in Guantánamo province which killed three Cubans, two Argentinians, a German woman, a French man and injured thirty-three others. “This has been a very big problem for our company, which is currently involved in several lawsuits with the victims’ families, who are demanding compensation,” said an employee who preferred not to give his name.
We have tried to maintain a high level service but, over the years, the bus yard has deteriorated a lot, almost none of the restrooms in the buses work, the seats suffer from constant use and mechanical breakdowns are becoming more common,” he explains. “Even then, we’re still way above what Astro offers.”
The employee points out that the move to a new location is unrelated to the January accident or to the costs of the lawsuits. “It was a decision made by the former transport minister, Adel Yzquierdo, when she was still in office and is only now being carried out,” he notes.
The ministry announced its decision in mid-March and stated that the change was in response to the reorganization and consolidation of the National Bus Company, apologizing for any inconvenience this might cause.
During the initial phase, authorities have provided free transfers from 26th Street to the new location to give travelers time to adjust to the change.
“A lot of us who work for the company don’t agree with this but there is nothing we can do.”
“Having one company which charges in hard currency and another which charges in Cuban pesos under the same roof is not a good idea,” he states. “Their customers’ expectations are not the same. And Central Station does not meet the standards that tourists are looking for. There isn’t even a convenient taxi stand in the area.”
A group of drivers from Panataxi, who used to regularly pick up passengers at the former location, sent a letter to the ministry last week asking that Viazul either be returned to its former headquarters or that a dedicated taxi stand for its customers be provided. So far, however, they have not received a reply.
The issue of both companies operating under one roof has also led to complaints from Viazul customers, who lament the poor conditions of the station’s public areas. “You cannot use the toilets because they are so dirty. They have no toilet paper and you can’t flush most of them because there’s no water in the tanks,” complained Lucía, a Cuban living in Miami who bought a ticket on Saturday to travel to Camagüey.
“I arrived at the airport and thought I had to go to the terminal on 26th Street but they told me it had moved,” she reports to 14ymedio. “The old station was smaller but it was in better condition. At the new location things are very disorganized and the customer services leave much to be desired”. She acknowledges, however that “though the quality has gone done, at least it’s now in a more central location.”
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