05 JUN 2015: Rumblings were definitely going on at FITCuba this year. The elephant in the room a.k.a. the turista Americano was finally exposed by none other than Cuban Minister of Tourism Manuel Marrero Cruz.

The head honcho of the country’s largest industry a.k.a. tourism delivered an introductory speech last month at the 35th annual FITCuba, the national tourism trade show providing an overview of current tourism arrivals, to date 1.5 million tourists which is up by 15 percent compared to last year, and then it happened.

He uttered “American” to a packed house of international tourism suppliers and media who convened for the May 5 show’s opening along the sandy shores of Cayo Coco island and revealed 120 US travel agents were in our midst. The house came down. A thundering applause erupted and then it was back to business.

As Marrero Cruz explained his ministry is prepared to work with any kind of tourism partners, acknowledging that American companies ready to do business, but recognizing too, those companies and countries like Canada which contribute to Cuba’s tourism will not be forgotten.

“I reiterate to all tour operators, airlines and entrepreneurs, we will never forget that in difficult moments all those companies that have contributed to the development of Cuban tourism, despite the pressures and sanctions received,” he said.

The minister said as the blockade goes on, “Cuba is the only place, US citizens can’t visit freely as tourists.”

Americanos

This past December US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in Panama to discuss easing the US embargo which has been in place since 1962 and to start a ‘normalization’ process. Many Cubans call it D17 to mark the day, December 17.

During the 3-day FITCuba show (May 5-7) news broke of the new Miami-Havana ferry service. By all accounts no details of the momentous service were provided to local reps during the conference including this scribe and news of the agreement was only evident by the live CBC newsfeed on the lobby lounge’s TV.  

Some industry insiders described the Americans present as salivating at the rich product they have been missing all these years.  Cuba is such a hot seller that Sunwing Travel Group, the world’s largest travel provider selling Cuba ranks this sun destination as its largest in terms of passenger volume.

“(We) send over 700,000 Canadians annually to 10 tourism regions,” says Janine Chapman, vice president of marketing for Sunwing Travel Group and adds, “As North America’s largest vertically integrated travel company, the Sunwing Travel Group is well positioned to benefit from the potential market changes that would be associated with a decision to lift the United States travel embargo to Cuba.”

She explains the Canadian-based travel company owns the fastest growing tour operator in the United States, Vacation Express as well as Blue Diamond Resorts which operates 12 resorts and over 6,000 rooms in its expanding Cuban portfolio (hotel brands like Royalton Luxury Resorts, Memories Resorts, and the newly introduced Starfish Resorts).

“It is anticipated that if the embargo is lifted, there would be significant interest from the US market to travel to Cuba.  The increasing demand from this new source market could impact Canadian vacationers in the form of reduced availability, particularly in the last minute market.  Canadian tour operators that are not vertically integrated could be forced to reposition aircraft to other destinations in the event of accommodation shortages.”

Conference overview

For the first time in FITCuba’s 35 year history, the trade show was staged at a hotel: the new five-star luxury hotel Melia Jardines del Rey, a property which only opened in December and which officially opened at FITCuba.  

More than 1,800 international delegates from 53 countries gathered on this fantasy island to discover new, exciting products and to hold meetings and sign new business deals.

Canada consistently remains the leading provider of international tourists to Cuba (Mintur, the Cuban Ministry of Tourism reports 1.2 million Canadian arrivals in 2014 which is a 6.3 percent increase from the previous year).

The Melia property also opened its chic promenade of side shops which includes a night club, a bowling alley, an exclusive cigar shop with a private VIP lounge, a traditional Japanese restaurant flanked by mucho expensive bonsai plants and a luxury spa opening later this year.

The numbers

In 2014 Cuba reported 3 million international visitor arrivals, a 5.3 percent growth compared to the previous year.

Canadian tourists rank the highest. The other top foreign countries with the highest visitor arrivals to Cuba are:

Chile
China
Colombia
Sweden
Brazil
Uruguay

The foreign countries with a decline in visitor arrivals:

United Kingdom
Mexico
Argentina
Russia

Foreign countries with the most significant increase in visitor arrivals:

Venezuela (71.6 percent)
Germany (20 percent)
Italy, FITCuba’s guest country (17.3 percent increase)

The future of Cuba’s tourism

The country is running full speed ahead. The minister did not elaborate on specifics when he indicated Cuba is currently working on 53 investment projects from various fields including marketing and hospitality management.  To date 26 joint ventures have already been established, he noted, and added 12 of them have fully been completed.

To date, 18 international hotel chains manage 35,892 rooms across Cuba, which the minister explains comprises 57.1 percent of the country’s total room inventory with luxury being a huge component, as he noted 85.1 percent of the foreign-run resorts have four and five star status.

New hotel brands

Warwick International Hotels of France is managing new properties in Cayo Santa Maria and Varadero while Excellence Style Hotels from Colombia is managing Sun Beach, a 3-star all-inclusive in Varadero owned by the Cuban company Gran Caribe S.A. In addition, Kempinski in Switzerland, Singapore’s Banyan Tree and the Sercotel chain from Spain were also noted.

The biggest hotel mainstay

Melia Hotels International, S.A. manages 27 hotels and this year is celebrating 25 years of operations in Cuba.

International buzz

TripAdvisor Traveller’s Choice has voted the Hotel Royalton Cayo Santa Maria as the best all-inclusive in the Caribbean and in the world.  For best beach in the Caribbean, look no further than Playa Paraiso (Paradise Beach) on Cuba’s Cayo Largo.

This year TripAdvisor’s Traveller’s Choice ranks this chunk of sea and sand as the Caribbean’s second best. Varadero Beach ranks fifth and Playa Pilar nabs no. 15 on the 25 best Caribbean beaches listings.

Havana has been selected as one of the seven new wondrous cities on earth by NewSevenWonders Cities, a competition created by Swiss-born filmmaker Bernard Weber in a global campaign which he hopes spawns debate. (https://www.new7wonders.com/en/cities).  

Lift

Cuba has 10 international airports. As of May 1, Canadians no longer have to pay an 25 CUC departure tax at the airport as the cost is absorbed in the flight-only ticket or vacation package.

54 international airlines fly to Cuba. This year, new air is coming from:

•    Iberia airlines with five flights weekly starting June 1.

•    Air China which starts operations in September with a weekly flight pattern from Beijing to Canada and finally to Havana.

•    Argentina two flights weekly with Argentina Airlines

Nautical

Cuba is for sea lovers. An ocean fantasy fuelled by warm sea waters perfect for swimming and diving and some of the world’s best coral reefs housing a profusion of rich marine life, no wonder the tourism ministry devoted this year’s theme to nautical tourism.

And the best place to highlight the riches was no other than staging FITCuba in the grand daddy of Cuba’s dive spots: the Jardines del Rey (the Garden of the King).

Moreover the conference attendees heard nautical is one of the fastest growing segments in the Americas as described by the World Travel Organization.

Cuba offers seven marinas mostly around Havana,Varadero, and one in Cayo Guillermo, and the other is the Marina Gaviota Cabo San Antonio at the most northerly tip in Los Morros which is a good spot for those vessels sailing from Mexico.

But still the big word is on the blockbuster Marina Gaviota Varadero, Cuba’s largest and most modern marina situated on the tip of Hicacos Peninsula in Varadero which has a planned July opening and will be able to accommodate over 1200 boats.

Frank Pais Oltuski Rodriguez, vice-president for marketing of Gaviota S.A., the company that manages a third of the number of hotel rooms in Cuba, announced that Gaviota has purchased more catamarans and dive ships with plans to improve nautical sporting areas in several provinces including Pinar de Rio, Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila and Holguin.

Expect a new water park in Jardines del Rey for water skiers. The German company Rixen, of which its namesake inventor Bruno Rixen created the cable wakeboard system back in 1960, is developing this project in Cayo Guillermo slated to start development in June.  

Cuba also finished hosting the 65th Ernesto Hemingway Fishing Tournament in late May, one of the most popular fishing competitions in the world. Over the past decade 30 nations have sailed these smooth waters from such countries as the United States, Russia, UK, Italy, France, and Spain.

Next year

In 2016 Canada will be feted as the guest nation when the 36th FITCuba returns to Havana where the tourism event will feature heritage and culture as the theme.

FIT Cuba 2015. Images by Stephen Smith
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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