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Tourism in Cuba: A (re) encounter with culture and comfort

Turismo mexicana alimentosMexican Fabiola Fuentes, Unilever Food Solutions’ chef for Latin America’s northern region and Cuba, explained that she promotes the company’s convenience foods. As the best attended edition of this leisure industry event came to a close, reports indicated that more than 5,000 individuals from 59 countries had participated in the 36th International Tourism Fair, FITCuba 2016.

Contrary to what some may think, the event’s achievements will only become clear well after the fair closes, but Cuban tourism did show its credentials, which have made it the country’s second largest generator of hard currency, and one of its most dynamic industries, proving itself to be of growing interest to global business.

In the words of Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, the event showed that everyone wants to do business with Cuba, with expectations for the Fair surpassed in terms of both attendance and proposals for collaboration. FITCuba 2016 was marked by the concurrently scheduled meeting of the World Tourism Organization’s Commission for the Americas, and by the decision to promote the country’s culture as Cuba’s most important attraction.

San Ambrosio Hall at the Morro-Cabaña historical complex was the event epicenter, providing the latest information, including a detailed outline of options offered by the country’s principal hotel chains and travel agencies to accommodate the growing numbers of international tourists arriving to the island.

Precisely here, Abel Acosta, deputy minister of Culture, commented, “All of the nation’s culture is at the disposal of tourism.”

Also announced here was that the foreign investment portfolio presented by the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur) included 127 new proposals: 25 for the construction of hotels; 97 hotel administration contracts – with or without external financing; and five projects related to the management of marinas.

Amidst all this activity, Havana was the perfect hostess. As another Fair focus, the city shone as a destination of colonial enchantment, capturing the attention of those who know it is the country’s second most visited location, and the first for tourists interested in culture.

Carlos A. Rivera, director of the travel agency Cubatur in the western region of the country, noted that the Fair was additionally distinguished by the attendance of many businesses new to Cuba, and the unprecedented presence of those representing the Asian market.

“It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon evident in Havana now – but everyone wants to be here. The Cuban capital attracts, even if it’s just to spend one night. There is much potential for development, and it is therefore a challenge to raise the levels of satisfaction of each and every visitor,” Rivera said.

Ranked among the most popular Caribbean destinations, Havana is the principal port of entry to the country. According to the Mintur’s representative in the capital, Xonia Beltrán, 47% of all visitors arrive at José Martí International Airport, with some 1.68 million passing through its gates in 2015, mainly from the United States, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Britain, and Germany.

Havana is one of Cuba’s top tourist destinations. Photo: Jorge Luis González
With 11,309 hotel rooms, representing a fifth of the nation’s total, and more than 2,000 private homes serving as bed and breakfast inns with 1,700 rooms providing an alternative lodging option, the city has become a great urban destination, where events, values and cultures converge.

Referring to the non-state tourism sector, Beltrán noted that Havana already boasts some 400 privately run restaurants or paladares, which have helped to revive Cuban culinary traditions, and are beginning to work closely with travel agencies to schedule visits. While this number is not as yet adequate to meet the growing demand, an encouraging future can be forecast.

Beltrán insisted that improving accommodations is a priority, with the focus on hotel renovation and construction, an increase in private rooms, and the development of a rigorous system to rate and categorize facilities.


The increase in flights, partnerships, and markets, along with efficient linkages between enterprises, and the interest in fully satisfying clients, all contribute to making prospects for Cuban tourism promising. On the second morning of FITCuba, the Gaviota S.A. Tourism Group took the stage to describe its work, and started, of course, in Havana.

Frank País Oltuski, Gaviota vice president for marketing, said that after opening four hotels in the provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara and Ciego de Ávila, the company is managing 62 facilities with 26,752 rooms, representing more than a third of the national capacity.

With 1,290 rooms in Havana, the state enterprise is looking to expand to 7,000 rooms between 2018 and 2025, to address the lodging shortage in the capital.

The company vice president stated that at the end of 2016, a veritable jewel of Cuban hotel facilities will open across the street from the city’s Parque Central, with 246 rooms.

Along with the renovation of formerly elegant hotels along the Prado, other attractive neighborhoods where lodging is to be developed include the central historic district,

Vedado and Miramar, to bring more functionality and modernity to the city’s tourist options.

Of the 3,800 rooms to be managed by Gaviota nationally, as of early 2017, about a thousand will be on Cayo Guillermo and 1,495 on Cayo Las Brujas.

Oltuski added that also to be expanded is the company’s marina on Cayo Coco, where the best diving and sports fishing facilities and equipment are available, along with popular boat excursions, like the Crucero del Sol.

Meanwhile, on the Hicacos Peninsula, construction of a new Iberostar hotel, with more than 800 rooms, will be concluded over the next few months; and the Paradisus Varadero will be expanded.

“Among the Caribbean’s most modern, and recognized as Cuba’s most important tourist port, the Marina Gaviota Varadero is already, in practice, a specialized facility serving yachters,” Oltuski said. The facility offers more than a thousand berths, along with a variety of technical and recreational service options. To be added strategically are new accommodations close to the marina, which tend to lengthen stays by international boaters.

The Cubanacán state-run hotel chain has a history of almost 30 years, and with President Yamily Aldama at the helm, has reaffirmed its trademark modern décor and personalized service, while now emphasizing restoration and environmental sustainability.

The company’s promotion and public relations specialist, Miguel Brugueras, gave high priority to the group’s E Hotels to be found in eight of the nation’s 10 UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites, distinguished by their ties to their environment, their intimacy and elegance. He highlighted interest in natural destinations like the Viñales Valley, a Cultural Heritage site; the Ciénaga de Zapata, the largest and best-preserved wetlands in the Caribbean; and Las Terrazas located in the Sierra del Rosario mountains, considered the country’s first eco-museum.

“In addition to efforts to invite return visits, especially in the Canadian market, Cubanacán is promoting its seven international diving centers, and has great potential for the development of hiking, cycling, and bird watching, as well as programs for honeymoons,” Brugueras said.

Aldama noted the upcoming opening of hotels in Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Viñales, and reported that in 2016 the chain’s urban hotels will be joined by a dozen constructions in Havana, where 160 high-standard rooms will soon be ready, focused on longer term stays.

Generally speaking, Aldama commented that joint projects and the opening of hotels under their own names will provide, in the short-term, more than 1,500 new rooms, which will be added to the 16,293 Cubanacán currently manages, with special emphasis on the island’s eastern regions. Future plans include adding another 13,000 rooms with foreign capital, and some 4,500 which will function under administration and sales contracts with international companies.

The previous afternoon, Eduardo Acosta, leading the Gran Caribe S.A. Cuban state enterprise group established in 1994, has more than 12,000 rooms in 42 facilities.

Keeping the art of hospitality in mind at all times, “from a cordial welcome to the careful pairing of beverages and food,” the hotel chain manages emblematic luxury hotels, with most of its facilities located in Havana, Cienfuegos, Jardines del Rey and Cayo Largo del Sur, he said.

Jealously guarding the history of Cuban traditions, Gran Caribe’s properties include many of great artistic and cultural value, in addition to several outstanding beach resorts.

Acosta cited some of Gran Caribe’s accomplishments, including the opening of the Hotel Pullman Cayo Coco and the ranking of Paraíso Cayo Largo among the world’s three best beaches, while identifying challenges as the diversification of offerings for specialized groups of tourists, and adding comfort at remodeled facilities.

From another point of view, the state travel agency group Viajes Cuba, established just a year ago, now includes the agencies Cubatur, Havanatur, Viajes Cubanacán and Ecotur, although all will retain their own sales outlets.

With its national network of ticket and lodging sales offices in 53 of the country’s municipalities, Viajes Cuba offers assistance to half of all visitors to the island from approximately 60 countries, especially with cruise lines, the company’s president, José M. Bisbé, said.

He projected more joint operations with new cruise line companies; the expansion of work with mega-yachts; health tourism; the introduction of gastronomy and musical tours; and a special approach to the U.S. market, within the framework of travel licenses currently granted by that country’s Treasury Department.

Bisbé added that Viajes Cuba has ties with more than 1,500 providers in the state as well as private sectors; and is responsible for domestic tourism and international missions undertaken by officials.

Pending tasks, he said, include the incorporation of advanced technology in commercial management; better attention to the work of tourist guides; and making services available to the blind and visually impaired.


This is not about an offering from Cuban tourism but a separate mention of those domestic and international suppliers who provision the industry. For the second time during an International Tourism Fair, an event was organized to let hotels and restaurants know what is available. With some 70 companies registered as exhibitors, the Suppliers Showcase 2016 surpassed participation in the previous event three times over.

Given that only a fifth of the exhibitors were Cuban, international interest in supplying products and services to the country’s tourism sector was evident. Authorities responsible for the area described the experience as fruitful, and noted the unprecedented presence of private suppliers from Havana, the Ciénaga de Zapata, and Santiago de Cuba, as well as the broad participation of those from countries such as Spain, Mexico, and Canada.

According to Sergi Illa, Inversiones Pucara S.A. (IPSA) marketing specialist, the event showed that the expansion of tourism has an important spill-over effect, and can lead to new opportunities across the country, known for its special culture.

The Panamanian company representative, working in Cuba for almost two decades distributing beverages, food, and supplies, principally to hotels, expects that Cuba’s population and economy will continue to note benefits resulting from the increase in tourism.

Playing a similar role is the Spanish firm Ibero Trust de Mercado S.A. (ITM), well-established after 15 years in the country. Its commercial representative in Havana, Diver Rodríguez, emphasized the high demand on the part of hotels for their line of dietetic foods, including low calorie items, and foods for lactose and gluten intolerant, or diabetic guests.

From Mexico, Fabiola Fuentes, Unilever Food Solutions’ chef for Latin America’s northern region and Cuba, explained that she promotes the company’s convenience foods, exhibiting versatile ingredients which facilitate the cooking process, and allow recipes and costs to be standardized. She noted that purchases include complementary consultation and help in developing a greater variety of dishes, without overlooking longstanding Cuban culinary traditions.

Cuban Pedro F. Carrasco, assistant business manager for DESOFT (a company offering information technology solutions based in Matanzas) reported that several entities including the hotel chains Gran Caribe and Islazul, as well as the Ministry of Tourism, are interested in acquiring information technology products and services, to support energy conservation, management of human resources, and telephone records.

Despite DESOFT’s extensive work within other sectors of the Cuban economy, Carrasco noted that the company is just taking its first steps into tourism, and FITCuba 2016 was a turning point, since DESOFT’s products and services can meet many needs in this arena.

Lázaro Mesa, owner of a hostel in the Cienaga de Zapata, made his first appearance at a FITCuba event, representing 239 private rentals and some 20 restaurants serving visitors in the area.

“We don’t promote any one house, but rather the wealth of tourist options offered by the place where we live. Without the nature and history which characterizes us, we wouldn’t be anything. Nevertheless, we add our hospitality and personalized service to these specialized tourism attractions,” Mesa commented.


Joining the attractive options offered by Cuban tourism was a portfolio presented by the Cuban medical services distribution enterprise, introduced by Dr. Jorge A. Miranda, president of the company whose products and services are being appreciated in a number of countries.

The portfolio includes seven types of offers: medical assistance in Cuba; academic and professional development services; scientific events; health for wellness and quality of life; optical, pharmaceutical, natural and traditional medicine products; as well as professional services offered abroad.

Describing the entity he directs, which serves as “a big commercial umbrella” for other institutions, Miranda explained that its principal strength lies is its professionalism, capacity, and the ethical values of Cuban healthcare workers. Medical attention in Cuba is a unique opportunity, he said, given the knowledge of professionals here, since “not everything is cured with modern technology.”

He noted that the distributor offers services at 14 international clinics on the island, and 122 offices at hotels, 13 medical schools with 25 departments, some located close to important tourist destinations which have great potential to attract visitors.


Osvaldo Ulises awoke in the dawn hours on the last day of FITCuba 2016, to travel to Havana from Fomento, in the center of the island, to purchase a special package being offered for the Cuban population, to visit a beach resort hotel for the first time.

The Sancti Spíritus farmer was pleased with the prices for stays at top quality hotels offered by Havanatur, and emphasized the importance of the opportunity to take his entire family to Varadero this summer.

As has become customary, the Gaviota Group offers weekly specials of this type for domestic tourist, in Havana, Varadero, Santa Clara, Morón and Holguín. Lisbel Betancourt, director of promotion, indicated that transportation discounts between July and September are the major incentive for the national market.

Betancourt noted that this year’s FITCuba was a busy one, especially given the arrival of new tour operators from the United States, adding that the Ministry of Tourism had expanded the number of authorized vendors to work in the U.S. market.

The representative commented, “Gaviota is distinguished by the comprehensive service it provides clients at every destination. While Varadero was the most common, in the beginning, I believe that national tourists now prefer to opt for shorter stays in higher standard hotels on the northern cays of Villa Clara and Ciego de Ávila.”

Oscar Mederos, executive director of Viajes Cubanacán in the west, noted the signing of new contracts with tour operators linked to cruise lines, but emphasized that 56% of the agency’s income comes from Cuban vacationers.

“The national market is growing every day in numbers and importance, including in its expectations, since more is known. We are always ready to give them the best service, ensure that they find what they seek with us. We continue to be receptive to having more local tourists travel within the western region of the country,” he concluded.

Mercedes Orta, a homemaker, also expressed her satisfaction with the package she acquired from Viajes Cubanacán to spend some time in August at the Hotel Brisas de Caribe, her first stay at a resort hotel.

Accompanied by her two daughters, Leydis León reported that she had enjoyed several stays at four and five star hotels, saying, “Although it requires an effort to save to purchase a tourist package, it’s worth the sacrifice. We are going for the third time, this year; we always take advantage of the May specials. This way we get to know beautiful places and receive very cordial attention.”

(By Katheryn Felipe/

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