Cuba boosts its bet on tourism

FITCuba 2014 confirmed the national strategy of giving a strong boost to the hotel network and the interest of businesspeople from other countries in the investments Cuba is aiming for.

1. Some 1,200 representatives of hotel chins, travel agencies, tour operators and airlines from 48 countries attended attracted by the Cuban plans of betting with greater strength on the leisure industry.

Another edition of the International Tourism Fair (FITCuba 2014) concluded in Havana on May 10 between the expectations of a record growth in the number of tourists this year and vast investments to increase businesses and the offer in that sector.

A while before opening in Havana, on May 6, the doors of the Morro Cabaña Historic Park, the event’s venue this year, the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) reported a five percent increase in the arrival of foreign visitors in the first quarter of the year. The data was announced by the Cuban authorities before a host of almost 1,200 accredited participants: 419 tour operators, 149 travel agents, 175 representatives of hotel groups, 58 airline officials and 195 journalists.

Those present came from 48 countries encouraged by two important players on the board of the Cuban economy: a strong construction movement to increase the accommodations capacities in this Caribbean archipelago and the approval in March of a new Law on Foreign Investment. The legislation, which responds to a greater political interest in attracting foreign capital, came into force at a time when investments in tourism are increasing.

For this Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca presented tourism among the 11 sectors prioritised by the government when arguing before the MPs the need for a more open policy to do business with companies from other countries.

Weeks later Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced to the FITCuba guests that more than 10,000 rooms are being built, in addition to marinas, golf courses and other projects to diversify and make more attractive the offer for tourists.To expand and diversify the recreation offer, the tourism companies are investing in golf courses and aquatic sports alternatives.

The increase would be significant. Today Cuba has a bit over 61,000 rooms. More than half are in hotels managed by international hotel chains: 5,600 rooms in 15 hotels under joint ventures and another 31,000 rooms in installations operated through administration and marketing contracts with foreign managements.

The state and joint venture sector is joined by a strong expansion of private home rentals. The Tourism Ministry, with an attitude more prone to understanding and collaborating with these new actors of the Cuban economy, estimates there are more than 2,000 restaurants and some 7,250 rooms in hostels and family homes.

The investment perspectives are more encouraging than the growth in tourist arrivals, which masks some concerning sign. After a spectacular leap of 9.3 percent in January, this indicator slowed down: 5.2 percent in February and 1.3 percent in March, according to ONEI.

Despite the threat, Tourism Deputy Minister Alexis Trujillo predicted before the Fair that Cuba would finally reach a dream that for years has been evasive: “Because of the way in which the peak tourist season has behaved and the contracts, for the first time we must reach the three million tourists this year.”

For Cuba to sustain such ambitious development plans for its hotel system, it is giving a boost to the  expansion of air connections with the rest of the world. In addition to the purchase of aircraft from Russia, it has signed agreements for new flights from the issuing markets.Jewels of colonial architecture, like Trinidad and Havana, hold an increasingly more privileged place among the tourism options in Cuba.

During the International Tourism Fair, the Cuban Institute of Civil Aeronautics signed agreements with Air France to inrease the 14 weekly flights that the French company sends to the largest of the Caribbean islands. France, the third issuing country and the guest of honour of FITCuba this year, recovered in the first quarter the upward tendency with an 8.9 percent increase in visitors, after a 2013 with a 4.8 percent decrease (96,640 tourists).

The Cuban strategy for the development of the leisure industry points to strengthening traditional markets, in the first place Canada and Europe. But in view of the Old Continent’s problems because of its financial crisis – Spain is the most notorious case with tourist decreases of 10 percent in 2013 and four percent in the first three months of this year -, the Cuban companies and their partners are working intensively on expanding toward emerging economy markets.

In the first quarter China took a 31 percent leap after an 18 percent advance last year. Russia, Brazil and Argentina also appear among the priorities.

Manuel Marrero defended before the Fair participants another strategic objective of the country’s tourist policy: the diversification of the offer, through a more intelligent exploitation of Cuban culture, the national patrimony, the cities, nature and other qualities that imprint its own stamp to this Caribbean destination.

One of the Fair’s illustrious guests, Secretary General of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) Taleb Rifai, commended Cuba for the road it is undertaking to diversify the recreation offer, in an industry that has mainly been directed at a passive sun and beach tourism. The major investments, with the Marina Varadero among the important examples, point to this sector’s change of face.

But the success will also depend on the expansion of hotels and small businesses, of hotel chains as well as of private home rentals. The small size of each one guarantees the combination of high quality and variety of the recreation offer. When added up – no longer so small – they turn that alternative into an attractive factor. The Cuban authorities are beginning to sense it, judging by the space it is giving them in the strategy announced this time. (2014)

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