To Speak of Tourism in Cuba Requires More, Much More

Several tourists take pictures in the Havana’s Plaza Vieja. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Elías Amor Bravo, Economist, June 22, 2022 — Not to rain on your parade, but tourism in Cuba deserves a more respectful podium, and one more in tune with the economic and social reality of the island, new economic actors and the global environment. Cubadebate titled a report in the following manner, “Tourism is transitioning to a new era, a new traveler and an economic challenge,” referring to sessions at the XV International Journalism and Tourism Seminar, which was held recently in Havana, at the  headquarters of the José Martí International Journalism Institute. This activity was organized by the Tourist Press Circle, UPEC, and the José Martí Institute, and highlights diverse issues related to tourism and the transformations in this sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis.  I insist they should be more ambitious.

The underlying thesis of some participants who presented at the seminar is that, following the pandemic, the world will shift “toward a new tourism, a new traveler and toward a new era,” and also, “a rebirth rather than a recovery of tourism,” taking into consideration the very negative impact the pandemic has had on tourism which we hope to put behind us.

This vision seems relevant and coincides, in general, with that which we have put forth in this blog when analyzing why tourism in Cuba continues, in 2022, to be below the levels seen in 2019, the last normal year. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Cancún and even Honduras, are reporting more favorable estimates and are preparing to reach historic numbers of travelers and income this year.

Why is Cuba falling behind while others gain a competitive edge? A good question which has not been answered during the seminar. If communists would allow themselves to be advised, they’ve received the first kick in the nose, when they say we are facing a new tourism, a new traveler, and a new era. But not only has demand changed, which is true and will require directing financial resources to research the new market and identify its preferences and needs, but also Cuba has changed the supply and no one seems to have noticed that. A new network of private actors has emerged and are betting on offering all kinds of tourism in an efficient and competitive manner, adding value to the product.

But the communist leaders don’t give a damn. They’d need to recognize that the exploitative model of Cuban tourism (hotels owned by the state and Spanish management companies) have barely changed since Fidel Castro authorized tourism as an economic activity some time in the 1990s. They’ve been doing the same things for 30 years, and as was said in the seminar, everything has changed.

They spoke of the Caribbean, without a doubt one of global tourisms privileged zones, with an increased dependency on this activity, a surface of 300,000 square kilometers and a population of 52 million, similar to that of Italy. The Caribbean Sea is 2,763,800 square kilometers and as stated during the seminar, is divided into two large zones, an insular Caribbean reached by plane or ship and the other, continental, reached by train or road, which has allowed the Caribbean to maintain supply chains.

There are 30 tourist destinations in the Caribbean which compete for market share; the tourist who goes to Jamaica does not come to Cuba and one who goes to the Dominican Republic does not go to Jamaica or Cuba. In the insular Caribbean, known as the Antilles, a decline in tourism of more than 50% was reported, but it was not clarified that the decline varies notably among the different destinations. Cuba has experienced a decline of 75% but the Dominican Republic, for example, has surpassed pre-pandemic levels. It was reported that the Antilles contain 380,000 rooms in more than 2,000 ranked hotels. The region includes 51 international airports and 97 ports, 15 of which are equipped to berth cruise ships.

The Caribbean tourism supply expo did not serve to highlight that these destinations do not only compete amongst themselves, but for years the Caribbean as a region has competed with other areas of the planet, even far away regions such as East Asia, because air travel has allowed globalization of those destinations. We must begin to view the Caribbean as an integrated zone, and align tourism policies, or things will not go well.

To this point, someone in the seminar asked, “For what are all these hotels being built?” comparing the vertiginous pace at which the hotel supply was expanding, as in Cuba, with the decline in tourism. They justified themselves by saying that this is an international practice and that in Cuba, few are being built relative to the global scene. Which is not completely true, if you take into consideration the source of funding, which in Cuba is public. This requires neglecting other items and social needs. In contrast, at the international level hotels are built using private funds.

Another statement which did not align with reality is that the hotel sector actually belongs to the real estate sector and not tourism as such. This is only true when hotels belong to a proprietor who leases them, but in most cases, the hotel belongs to a chain that manages them and the property rights, valued in the accounts, is a very important factor in obtaining financing and the consolidation of budgets. This is not possible in Cuba since hotels are state property. What do they intend to do, convert the Cuban communist state into a lessor of hotels?

There is also a significant preoccupation with the buying and selling of islands and islets in the Caribbean to transform them into luxury destinations. It is said that this could create governance issues on the islands in the future, which any prospective analysis would conclude. However, this is an option to take into consideration, for which a potential market exists, willing to invest in this type of operation and it is inconvenient to lose the potential of these keys which exist in Cuba, which in many cases remain on the underutilized.

Then, betting that Cuba will consolidate in sun and sand tourism, with the sole aim of accounting for the 77,809 existing hotel rooms, does not seem appropriate, taking into consideration the trends of the tourism sector. Mature European destinations have been abandoning this model at a quick pace, and betting on quality and service, incorporating elements of value in tourism for the new traveler of the new era.

Contrary to what was said, the tourism sector in Cuba has little potency when faced with tourism’s challenges, motivated by its concentration: 44% of hotel rooms are five star, which influences the comparative price of travel packages, and 48% of lodgings belong to Grupo Gaviota, another 22% to Cubanacán, 18% to Gran Caribe and 12% to Islazul. On the other hand, about 50,000 rooms are managed by foreign hotel companies, mainly Meliá, Iberostar, BlueDiamond, Roc, Barceló, Blau, Kempinski, Accor, NH, Axel, Be Live and Sirenis. There was no reference made to private individuals who provide tourist accommodations in their homes or other properties, which in some urban destinations compete directly with hotels.

And what can be said of the marketing and tourism campaign with the “Única” [“Unique”] message presented at the seminar? Well, another failure. They reassured that the campaign aims to associate the destination of Cuba with the people, Cubans, “primary ambassadors of the attractions.” We caution against that message, which could raise expectations that cannot be confirmed later by tourists upon reaching the Island, with increasing misery and desperation; and this can have a devastating impact on the tourist. There is no doubt that Cubans are hospitable people, happy, supportive, but at this time, there must be a prudent glance at the social reality to see whether those patterns continue.

During the seminar they will also cover other topics, such as climate change and tourism, resilient tourism in Cuba, the impact of tourism on local development, the role of travel journalism, and with the Be Epic conference, there will be featured sessions dedicated to Meliá, Vive y Punto and Blue Diamond, the Canadian hotel group. We’ll see where this all ends up.

Translated by: Silvia Suárez


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