Cuba ain’t ready for mass tourism

January 10, 2015 12:38 AM

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A cyclist in downtown Havana. From bus drivers to bartenders and ballet dancers, many Cubans are already imagining a more prosperous future after the United States says it will put an end to 50 years of conflict with the communist-run island. – Reuters pic, January 10, 2015. Salsa music and cigar smoke swirl round the grand courtyard of Havana's famous Hotel Nacional, and guests enjoy stunning views out over the "Malecon" seafront promenade and the ocean beyond.

But inside, many of its rooms are shabby and musty, the WiFi is costly and weak, customer service is often indifferent, and the food, while plentiful, is generally dull.

Although Havana is loaded with charm, great music and architectural jewels, there is a shortage of quality hotel rooms and restaurants, hire cars, taxis and other services.

Tour operators hope a fledgling detente between Cuba and the United States, announced last month, will lure hundreds of thousands of American tourists to enjoy the island's once forbidden fruits: its white beaches, colonial cities, fine cigars and rum, and the vintage American cars on its streets.

"There are four or five really nice hotels in Havana which you can count on for a really quality experience, and I think that needs to increase five-, six-fold," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel.

He has brought around 5,000 people to Cuba over the last four years, organising trips that range from short family visits for Cuban-Americans to holidays designed for art collectors or cigar aficionados.

"You have capacity issues at the airport with everything from luggage getting off flights to the customs process, and so those are all challenges," he said.

The Caribbean island was a favourite of American holidaymakers in the 1950s, but its tourism infrastructure went into decline in the decades following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and US economic sanctions against Castro's communist government meant Americans could no longer visit.

Even with a revival of market-style reforms in Cuba and investment from Canadian and European hotel companies, the country is not ready for a significant surge in tourism.

"If you think you can come for a luxury Caribbean vacation lying on the beach being waited on hand and foot, it ain't going to happen here, honey," Bonnie Schinagle, 56, joked over breakfast at Havana's recently restored Hotel Capri.

Schinagle, a special educational attorney from New York, was among a group of 28 tourists from across the United States on a week-long educational and cultural visit, now allowed after a relaxation of sanctions in recent years.

They said they had a wonderful time but that Cuba is more for adventurous travellers keen to soak up its unique atmosphere than a typical holiday of beach, spa and golf packages.

The government says international tourism brought in some US$2.3 billion (RM8.28 billion) in revenue in 2013, up from US$1.9 billion in 2009.

Over the same period, the number of hotel rooms rose by fewer than 2,000 to a total of 52,600 nationwide, although there were several thousand more in the five-star category.

US sanctions still make it illegal for tourists to visit Cuba unless they are Cuban-Americans or join programmes known as "people-to-people" tours which are run by licensed operators such as Laverty's and focus on cultural or educational themes.

Of the roughly 450,000 US citizens who went to Cuba in 2013, some 350,000 were Cuban-Americans who typically have relatives here.

As President Barack Obama's administration moves to dismantle sanctions as part of its deal to restore ties with Cuba, many more Americans will be allowed to visit.

Even when they are able to go, US tourists cannot access US bank services or pay with US credit cards, meaning they have to carry cash or travellers cheques.

They also find little Internet access, and have no roaming services on their US cellphones.

"We always tell people, when you come down you're entering into the dark zone, and of course Americans aren't exactly accustomed to that!" said Laverty.

Cuba says a record of more than three million tourists visited the island last year, up 5.3% from 2013.

Canadians have led the way in recent years. About 1.1 million visited in 2013, many of them skipping Havana and flying straight to Varadero east of the capital for a beach holiday with a similar feel to other Caribbean locations.

In second place was Britain, with fewer than 150,000, and Germany and France were third and fourth.

Some travellers are drawn to Cuba precisely because it hasn't mastered mass tourism.

"I always wanted to see Havana, and I wanted to get here before all the Americans come!" said Ray Constable, a haulage contractor from London.

"I also wanted to see whether communism works. We've been all over, and when you see how people live: it doesn't work."

Cuba's tourism ministry said in state media last week that its record year in 2014 shows it must "continue perfecting our work, raising the quality of the services we offer".

For now, tour operators are waiting for the US Treasury to publish new guidelines for travellers that they hope could see US visitor numbers shoot up. – Reuters, January 10, 2015.


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