06 JUN 2016: FitCuba2016, Cuba’s international tourism fair, was the largest one ever, and Canada was front and centre as this year’s special guest country. Since 1998 Canada has been Cuba’s number one international visitor market; and, for over 70 years Canada and Cuba have had non-stop diplomatic relations.

Seven decades of partnership

Canada’s new Minister of Tourism Bardish Chagger was on hand to thank officials and give a brief overview of some diplomatic milestones as a photo slideshow of polar bears and the Rocky Mountains among a handful of other Canadian scenes looped behind her. Then Yves Gagnon, Canada’s Ambassador to Cuba praised the official visit 40 years ago by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and said, “Despite seven decades (of partnership) there is still much we can do.”

Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz explained this year’s FITCuba theme was cultural tourism and relayed to the delegates, “Cuba will never abandon those (referring to Canadians) who have sided with us.”

This is it?

The Canada Pavilion, however, left a great deal to be desired. I had hoped/expected to see some of our iconic images played out by an entourage of costumed interpreters, skilful dancers, athletes or maybe a Mountie or two - perhaps a rep distributing maple sugar sweets or samples of our famous wines and cheeses. There was none of that.

With laughter and dancing and music blaring from other vendors outside in the hot Cuban sun what I found was an empty Canada Pavilion void of creativity filled with the silence of a boreal forest.

It was a dismal contrast to last year when Italy was the guest country and there was a cornucopia of plenty, a dolce vita of food and culture.

With the exception of an unresponsive tradeshow staffer and me there was not a soul to be found. It was a sad showing on Canada’s part and a missed opportunity to address the international tourist market as we celebrated our friendship with Cuba. If trade show attendees were hoping to be inspired by Cuba’s largest international tourist market they were disappointed.

Thankfully, Canada had a brigade of the nation’s major sun tour operators including a team of the country’s fabulous sun-specific travel agents and travel professionals who were probably too busy drumming up more business with meetings, private soirees and receptions to take notice.

Canadian tourists

Canada is Cuba’s number one international market: 1.3 million Canadian visitors in 2015 followed by Germany, the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

Marrero attributed the strong Canadian visitor numbers to the successful programmes run by major tour operators such as Sunwing, Transat, Air Canada Vacations and WestJet, along with Cuba specialists like Hola Sun and Caribe Sol as well as the large pool of travel agencies and professionals who have contributed to the success of Cuba as a prime destination from Canada.

Despite a drop last year in Canadian arrivals attributed to the poor Canadian dollar and mild winter, Canadian arrivals continue to reign. The Minister relayed how his office has a strategy in place to encourage Canadians to travel to Cuba.

“Our services are the priority and to improve standards,” he said explaining how the Cuban agency Formatur signed an agreement with the Institute of Hospitality and Tourism of Québec (ITHQ) to create an exchange and training programme in the culinary industry.

The Numbers

The Minister said Cuba has broken its record in tourism arrivals. In 2015, 3.5 million tourists vacationed in the popular sun destination, which resulted in a 17 percent increase compared to 2014.

The Cuban Ministry of Tourism Mintur forecasts 3.8 million tourists will visit Cuba in 2016.

The total tourism revenue last year was US $2.8 billion and reflects a 10.7 percent increase from the previous year.

The Cuban government has 126 new investment projects with 76 approved contracts from foreign companies. Within these development projects expect to see 17 new hotel companies arriving to Cuba.

For new room inventory currently 2,400 rooms are coming online each year. But by 2019, this room inventory is expected to more than double to 5,000 new rooms per year.

US/Cuba Relations

Despite the continued US embargo, there’s been an increase in US visitor arrivals.

Marrero reiterated that until the US Congress approves the current 12 authorized travel licenses into law, the Americans will not have ‘free’ travel to Cuba. “What is free, are the 12 categories which a US citizen can visit,” he said and added under United States law Cuba is the only country in the world in which a US citizen cannot go with a tour package.

So far this year 94,000 US visitors have visited Cuba, resulting in a 93 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

In 2015 Cuba welcomed 161,233 US visitors and 390,000 Cuban-Americans who visited their homeland. This year to date, 116,000 Cuban-Americans have visited.

200 US travel professionals registered for this year’s FITCuba.

Cuba can’t get any hotter.

During my visit, Havana seduced many a celebrity and conventioneer.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) was in town to convene during its 60th Regional Commission for the Americas. The conference occurred at the Hotel TRYP Habana Libre which was attended by 17 international tourism ministers from such countries as Chile, Columbia, Guatemala and Ecuador.

For the first time China had a presence with its own booth at the tradeshow. We bumped into Barbara Huang and the assistant director Jinhong (Johnny) Liu from the China National Tourism Office in Toronto.

The successful American movie franchise, Fast and Furious 8 was filming in Havana. Vin Diesel’s double I overheard was staying at my hotel, the Melia Habana along with crew.

Fathom cruise ship MV Adonia from Carnival is the first American cruise ship to dock in Havana in almost 60 years (stay tuned for details in my next story).

Chanel morphed the fabled Paseo del Prado leafy promenade into a star studded catwalk that drew a huge entourage of jet setters like Gisele Bundchen and others.

The San Cristobal, an acclaimed paladar restaurant to the stars and world leaders like US President Barack Obama was a hot spot with the likes of a UNWTO heavy weight spotted dining there.

... and yes, that reality TV family dynasty was in town. I admit - I was keeping up with the Kardashians.


All photo credits Stephen Smith/mycompasstv.




Ilona Kauremszky

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

Read more from Ilona Kauremszky

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