“What was advertised as a Five-Star hotel was really what we would consider a Three-Star, there were no box springs in the bed, but the beach was great and the food was wonderful.” That from the head of a Cuban American family that had booked an individual trip to Cuba. They have family in Cuba and do not want their names used as they plan to return. They enjoyed dinners in Havana’s privately operated restaurants called “paladars” but they heard the owners tell how difficult it was to secure entrees, like shrimp and lobster, on a regular basis. Bottled water in Havana Vieja was non existent during the 26 of July holiday or for half of the next day. “Hasn’t been delivered yet,” said one street vendor according to the couple. The hours long wait for a cell phone card put a crimp in their vacation time.
This week several hundred Miami Catholics are disappointed when they could not book rooms in Havana for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis. Lack of hotel rooms is an issue in Cuba. Despite all the hype Cuba is a vacation destination work in progress and that might be why approval of full scale cruise and air service to the island might come slower that American travelers might want.
The Cuban Military, which is true operator of the Island Nation’s tourism industry, is concerned with two issues. First the generals in charge likely realize the tourism infrastructure is not ready for an huge influx of Americans and second there is always the issue of control. There is fear that the cash Americans bring might upset the tightly regulated Socialist society, not to mention the demand for services like reliable internet which brings a challenge to the state run media.
Author and Cuba expert Dr. Joseph Azel says before the Cubans are ready for the potential American travel influx they need a massive infusion of capital for hotel expansion, they need to train staff, and they need to solve the issue of supplying the hotels with goods and services American travelers demand. “Right now it is very expensive for the Cubans to import items like American cereals and cigarettes.” With the American Embargo in place that issue will not go away anytime soon.
At present American travelers are allowed to venture to Cuba only if they meet one of 12 categories such as religious, cultural or scientific exchanges, journalism activities or affinity group travel. American Tourists need not apply and that is good for the Cuban’s who want to tightly control who comes and goes from the States. The Cuban embargo forbids unfettered tourist visits by American citizens. No scheduled cruise or airlines other than charters have been approved by Cuban authorities.
So the Cubans at this juncture are dealing with a 50% jump in American travelers that arrive under the present guidelines. The Cubans are hoping to increase hotel rooms by 50,000 in the next five years most of that financing expected to come from Spain. A total of 252 Spanish companies operate in Cuba including hotel chains. The Spanish government has created several credit lines to boost Spanish investment in Cuba. In the short term that does not solve the room shortage.
The Cuban tourism infrastructure will be a slow build out and will contribute to a carefully structured approval rate for schedule flights and cruises. According to Cuba scholar and author Dr. Andy Gomez, “ Part is their own poor infrastructure but I think more importantly they want to control the process. They go not want to give too much to the folks on the island too soon.”