The Only Thing to Stop Cuba's Tourism Growth Is Its Accommodations Crunch
Claire Boobbyer, Skift - Aug 02, 2016 7:30 am
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As Cuba's visitor numbers continue to soar the accommodation crisis in
many parts of the island is acute.
Few new hotels are coming online and the tourism boom shows no signs of
slowing down. Scheduled direct flights from the United States to the
island begin with a JetBlue flight at the end of the month and more will
launch this fall, bringing even more travelers to the island nation.
The stats tell the story. A total of 2,147,600 travelers visited the
island in the first six months of 2016, an 11.7 per cent rise on the
same period in 2015. In 2015 the total number of visitors to Cuba was
3,524,779 compared to 3,002,745 in 2014, a 17 per cent increase. Last
year some 161,233 Americans traveled to Cuba compared to just 63,046 in
2010, a 156 per cent increase in five years, making American visitors
the fourth largest group of arrivals last year after Canadanians, Cubans
living abroad, and Germans.
This surge in American travel Cuba relates to the December 2014 detente
between the United States and its old Cold War foe. In early 2015,
President Barack Obama relaxed the OFAC travel rules to Cuba for
American citizens permitting travel in 12 categories under a general
license; this was further relaxed in March 2016 before his historic
visit to the island: individual travelers can now self-certify and plan
their own educational, people-to-people visits to the island.
The Tour Crunch
But where are all these visitors staying? According to Cuban statistics,
the overwhelming majority of visitors (3,446,288) stayed in hotels on
the island in 2015 with Cuba reporting it had 66,389 rooms (excluding
the burgeoning private sector).
Tour operators are reporting that hotel prices are doubling as the
squeeze on capacity continues. Sergio García-González, Head of Marketing
for the UK's Cuba Holidays told Skift: "Some hotels have doubled and
others have tripled their room rates this year, especially in Havana.
Increases are most notable in popular top quality hotels like Parque
Central, Saratoga, and Nacional de Cuba. Other hotels, not as popular
but consistently good and also with a five-star rating, like Melia
Habana and Melia Cohiba, have also pushed up their prices."
The madness of Havana hotel pricing can be seen in a 'Havana Getaway'
marketed by InsightCuba in the U.S. which is offering three nights and
breakfast for two at the Melia Cohiba with airfare and legal
People-to-People activities in November for a staggering $5,100.
Chase Poffenberger, Executive Vice President of Academic Travel Abroad
(ATA) which will have arranged 65 people-to-people and cultural
delegations to Cuba by the end of this year, said: "The surge in
American travelers, coupled with the slow roll out of new hotel
inventory, continues to put pressure on existing hotels and contributes
to overall price increases."
"As a tour operator, we publish our tour prices 12-18 months in advance,
even though price increases in Cuba are announced much closer to a
group's arrival. Therefore, we must carefully estimate any increases.
With only a very few exceptions, ATA's hotel partners have honored our
reservations in Havana and Cienfuegos throughout a very busy season."
The Water Option
With the squeeze showing no signs of abating, travelers and operators on
both sides of the Atlantic are looking at alternatives. For one, the
trend for cruising is gaining popularity. A recent report revealed
53,748 travelers arrived by cruise ship in the first quarter of this
year some 40,751 more than in the same period last year. In 2013 a mere
1,883 cruise visitors docked in Cuba.
Cruising Cuba offers an alternative way of seeing the island without
worrying about hotel rooms. The New York Times Journeys to Cuba will use
French company Ponant for its first OFAC-compliant cruise in March 2017
at $10,975 for 11 days. For non-U.S. citizens, Star Clippers offers two
routes around the island. Star Clippers had initially offered hotel
stays bookending its 2016 trips but has abandoned the offer of hotel
stays either side of its sailings due to the difficulty of finding
rooms, its spokesperson said. Carnival Corp.'s new Fathom line, which
began sailing in May, offers two peer-to-peer compliant, seven-day
cruises a month out of Miami, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago
de Cuba. Non-discounted prices start at $2,320.
Cruising isn't the only floating option: GetMyBoat, the Airbnb for
boats, has 35 boats listed in Cuba and renewed its outreach there this
month, its spokesman said. A cruising catamaran for 7 nights (the
minimum rental) is $3,770 including the service fee and it sleeps 12; a
houseboat in Marina Hemingway costs $115 a night.
Paul Madden, owner of Cuba Yact, the only yacht owner with an OFAC
license for legal travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, is directing clients
away from Havana to the rest of the island. He is on the verge of
launching all-inclusive pricing for yacht trips to Cuba, which comply
with U.S. law, from $12,000 for 6-8 guests for a week. His move echoes
ATA's stance. Chase Poffenberger explained: "We are working to develop
more authentic, people-to-people experiences in Eastern Cuba where the
hotel overbooking issue is not as acute." For the first time,
Smithsonian Journeys, in association with ATA, will offer a
people-to-people Eastern Cuba trip in 2017.
The Private Option
The biggest beneficiary of Cuba's tourism boom has been the private
sector. Cuba's homeowners, who offer bed and breakfast in everything
from a colonial mansion in Trinidad to a 1950s apartment in Havana, are
riding the tourism surge and offering a service that many lower class
hotels in Cuba can't and don't match.
Tour operators that formerly could not incorporate B&Bs into itineraries
are now offering this kind of accommodation to travelers.
García-González of Cuba Holidays explained: "We are increasingly
recommending casas particulares to many of our clients especially those
looking to experience 'the real Cuba.' We believe casas particulares in
Cuba have greatly improved in terms of variety of choice, quality
standards and level of service, and as such they are now in a position
to compete with major hotels in Cuba."
Aiding the uptick in B&B bookings is Airbnb which came online in Cuba in
April 2015 for U.S. citizens with 1000 listings. Last year, it reported
13,000 U.S. visitors stayed across 4,000 Cuban casas; it currently
reports more than 7,500 listings in Havana alone, a jump by 3,500
lodgings since Airbnb was able to start selling Cuba to the rest of the
world in April 2016.
Aiming for a smooth vacation? Book well in advance. García-González
recommends at least two months: "Last minute availability in the larger
beach resorts — Varadero, Cayo Santa María, etc. — is still possible but
virtually non-existent in Havana at the moment."
Travelers might also want to think outside of the box. There are various
campismos in Cuba — these are inexpensive sites with concrete cabañas
(not campsites for tents; wild camping is not legally permitted in
Cuba). Not all accept international travelers but some of those that do
are fairly developed like the Aguas Claras on the edge of Pinar del Río
city. Also in Pinar del Río province, horse lovers can stay on stud farm
La Guabina. Backpackers can bed down in cabins on stilts facing the
River San Juan (at the eco-community Las Terrazas southwest of Havana;
in rustic accommodation next to the River Toa in Baraoca; and in a
rustic dorm at the HQ of the Alexander Humboldt National Park north of
Those who have always fancied a night with the nuns can now do so in
Pinar del Río city (two rooms available) as well as in Havana. In fact a
night with the St Bridget Sisters of the Convento de Santa Brigida in
their large colonial premises in Old Havana is not only an experience in
itself, the $80 a night including breakfast is a steal, just a short hop
between Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Vieja. It's much cheaper than the
nearest state-run Habaguanex hotel across the road — Los Frailes — and,
unlike Los Frailes, is never overrun with tourist groups — the nuns keep
a vigilant watch on all visitors.
Source: The Only Thing to Stop Cuba's Tourism Growth Is Its
Accommodations Crunch – Skift -