07 JUN 2016: At this year’s FITCuba Tourism Fair, in Havana, Cuba’s annual travel trade show, attendees heard about the huge repeat visitor arrival numbers. Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism Mintur, reported that among guest arrivals 44 percent are repeat visitors, with 96 percent citing a general satisfaction of the products and 94 percent saying they would recommend Cuba as a travel destination.

“We are focusing on a series of projects to standardize and categorize all of our establishments,” said Cuba’s Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz in his introductory speech held at the opening of FITCuba in Morro-Cabana Park.

The Big Boast

On the world accolade list, the Minister noted awards such as the Travellers’ Choice Awards from TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website, has recognized a variety of Cuban attractions. For instance, six Cuban resorts have been awarded Travellers’ Choice Awards among them the Melia Buenavista; Royalton Cayo Santa Maria; Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort & Spa; the Royalton Hicacos Varadero Resort & Spa, and Iberostar Varadero.

For beaches, The Playa Paraiso on Cayo Largo is rated “Second Best Beach” in this year’s Top 25 Best Caribbean Beaches from TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Awards. The same travel website also ranks the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana as the “Second Best Museum in the Caribbean” in 2015.

And, this year, Havana has been listed among the “Top 10 Best Destinations in the Caribbean” by the Travellers’ Choice Awards from TripAdvisor.

A quick scan on new or improved travel products:

Havana

Last year Havana welcomed 1.6 million visitors. This year, so far over 572,000 tourists have descended on the storied capital spiking a 37 percent increase according to the minister.

This leads to the old supply and demand equation. “We are working on overflow as our rooms are not enough to meet the growing demand. We are speeding up all investment processes,” said the Minister.

Marrero explained that investments are being sped up with the construction of luxury hotels in the city like the Hotel Manzana de Gomez from the Kempinski group and the Sofitel So Havana by the picturesque Prado Y Malecon scheduled to open in 2018. Currently three new hotels are under construction in Havana with plans for an additional 27 hotels.

Accommodations

The city’s hotel inventory scene like other cities and resort hubs across Cuba is adding mucho property developments. The new inventory is zoning in on luxury. Mintur reports this year there has been a 34 percent growth in Havana’s room nights compared to last year.

On the boutique hotel front, the themed properties from the Cuban Habaguanex hotels are a good bet. For faith-based clients or those wishing to overnight like a monk, the monk-themed Hotel Los Frailes is quickly spotted by the monk statue visible at the entrance. At the main lobby veer further inside to see an enclosed glass flooring of Havana’s original water cistern.

Cigar lovers will enjoy whiffing the Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas at the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. This quaint 9-room hotel which has a cigar sommelier has intimate rooms named after famous Cuban tobacco plantations. The big seller, however, is the onsite cigar shop Casa Del Habano with its air-conditioned enclosed lounge. The stogie crowd like puffing smoke rings while lounging among cedar cigar boxes that line the floor to ceiling shelves.

For the tried and true and the iconic properties, nothing beats the Mercure Sevilla Havana, TRYP Habana Libre, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and the Hotel Habana Riviera. Each hotel was a star when it first rolled out and thankfully time has only added to the allure of these Grande Dames.

For clients staying at the Habana Riviera, an exclusive photo exhibition is now on display in the lobby that features spectacular fly-over drone photography of the great hotels and their surrounds.

Renting casas particulares, which are traditional private homes run by Cubans, is popular too especially since Airbnb entered the scene last year. One Havana Airbnb insider indicated a new law for small and medium sized business owners is now licensed by the state. “Travel agencies have signed contracts with many house owners to receive tourists,” the Minister noted during the conference.

I spoke to a tourist trio from Delaware staying at an Airbnb in Havana who raved about the intimate service, the knowledgeable guide they hired, as they wowed there way by Havana’s ‘living areas,’ a.k.a the restored Old Plazas where local life unfolds for curious tourists.

Havana Guided Walking tours San Cristobal Agency, the city’s historic office which is part of an intricate network of other local heritage tourism products also provides a variety of services including guided walking tours.

Havana attractions

We sailed from the Hemingway Marina in the Nautico district to view the vast cityscape from the sea. But what stole the show was the imposing girth of the Fathom cruise ship MV Adonia from Carnival, the first American cruise ship to dock in Havana in over five decades.

Cruise passengers arrived the day before the trade show opening and were greeted by cheering Cubans and a dancing brigade of performers. Some 700 passengers walked on terra firma at Havana’s renovated cruise terminal, Terminal Sierra Maestra which set-dressing-like or otherwise, had an old cannon propped inside by the Havanatur desk, one of Cuba’s travel providers. The local Cubans I spoke to said, “We love Fathom.”

Outside, candy coloured 50s classic cars ferried American tourists around the city. As we walked along the waterfront, a huge mega million-dollar revitalization project was in the works to renovate buildings, create a pedestrian-friendly promenade and relocate the industrial port in a new $900-million development located west of Havana in Mariel.

Cultural Landmarks

Culture is one easy sell in Havana. Look no further than the newly restored Gran Teatro de la Havana, a mecca for the performing arts.

The cultural treasure was recently displayed with much fanfare during the historic visit of US president Barack Obama in March who delivered a speech at the theatre.

Click on the image to watch President Obama’s Speech to Cubans

obama

Ornate columns, marble interiors and restored plaster mouldings grace this Art Nouveau theatre against the main staircase which was illuminated in a collection of brilliant chandeliers. The theatre, which is home to the Cuba National Ballet earlier this year was renamed, Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, to honour Cuba’s great prima ballerina Alicia Alonso.

The footprint on the outside of the Havana Club Museum of Rum doesn’t seem large but since opening in 2000, the rum company reports over 1.5 million visitors have walked through its doors.

Pinar del Rio

For clients visiting Havana they might like to consider a country break to the Pinar del Rio countryside for eco tours. Only two hours from the capital, the drive takes visitors to the lush valley highly sought after by nature lovers and those wishing to top up their humidors.

Affectionately nicknamed the Green Cathedrals, ‘Catedrales Verdes’ for its bulging green topped mountain range that appear more like jade velvet domes, this span of the Vianales is home to tobacco country.

Images by Steven 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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