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Monday,  July 22, 2024   4:57 PM
FITCuba 2015: U.S. relations & the future of tourism

Approximately 1,800 delegates from 40 countries were recently welcomed to FITCuba 2015, marking the 35th anniversary of the country's annual international tourism fair.

This year's event was held at the new five-star all-inclusive Melia Jardines del Rey Hotel – Melia’s 28th property in Cuba and at 1,776 rooms, their largest so far. And for the first time, FITCuba welcomed 120 travel representatives from the U.S., many of whom took part in a private meeting with their Cuban counterparts.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz opened the show, which took place May 5-7, with a ribbon cutting ceremony at the hotel’s entrance, followed by formal speeches in the conference area. 

Marrero Cruz welcomed guests and outlined the remarkable growth in Cuba’s tourism, acknowledging the long term and consistent support of Canadians. Last year, there were more than 3 million visitors in total to the island (up 5.3 per cent) – 1.2 million of which were from Canada (up 6.3 per cent). Italy’s partnership in tourism and designation as this year’s FITCuba ‘guest nation’ was also highlighted.

The Minister stated that early 2015 figures suggest a 14 per cent year-over-year increase in visitors so far, adding that the recent announcements by President Obama concerning possible normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have a significant impact on tourism to Cuba. He explained that Cuba plans to open an additional 2,500 hotel rooms over the next few years and build-out supporting infrastructure such as airports, marinas, transportation and communication platforms to meet this increased demand. Carlos Vogeler, regional director for the Americas, World Tourism Organization, acknowledged Cuba’s leadership and support in expanding tourism within the Caribbean region.

On the second day of the show, Domingo M. Cisneros Rodríguez, president of Marinas Marlin, outlined expansion plans for “nautical tourism development” throughout the island, which will enhance opportunities for scuba divers, sailors, and others, adding that nautical communications are increasing in the country as are docking and marina facilities. He also commented that there is a desire to increase the European market for this segment.

The U.S. question

In light of the recent easing of U.S.-Cuba relations, PAX posed the following three questions to several participants at FITCuba 2015:

  • What do you see as the top benefits and challenges which Cuba will/should address with this potential increase in tourist arrivals? 
  • Canada is currently the number one source of tourists to Cuba. What do you see as the potential impact for Canadian tourists, travel agents, tour providers, airlines, etc.? 
  • If you had to guess if/when that normalization would occur, what time frame would you foresee?

Stuart Hanley, Aztec Airways, Miami:

“Cuba is beautiful, natural and unspoiled … and (more tourists) will benefit them economically. Trying to retain (natural beauty) may be the hardest part. The impact on Canadian tourists will be prices are going to go up, while prices for Americans will be coming down – eventually. Right now, our airfare (“categorized travel” - people to people) – Miami/Havana is about $450 for a 30-minute flight compared to $99 to Nassau. It will be a five-year time frame for normalization – not all that unrealistic.”

Manuel Yanes Salinas, Destination Supervisor, Air Canada Vacations:

“Development is going to be huge… The tourism industry is very important in Cuba. We’re really excited about it. I think normalization will take more than three years – this is a time consuming process and it is not going to happen overnight.”

Lawrence R. Elliott, Group Vice President, Business & Corporate Affairs, Sunwing:

"The obvious benefit is the economic benefit to the island – this will create more secure employment, the potential for free trade agreements, manufacturing off shore for the U.S. market, etc. I’m glad I enjoyed Cuba before (the coming surge of U.S. tourists) – the almighty dollar will become more significant. I think it is inevitable that Canada will lose inventory – beds, availability… It’s a supply and demand situation and prices will rise. There are already hotels in Havana with a walk-in client paying $350 U.S. a night. It’s not going to be a drop dead date for normalization – the water’s rising and it’s already started. We’re talking not in terms of years but in terms of months.”

Regarding normalization, Minister Marrero Cruz told PAX that “it is impossible to know but I think maybe two years.”

FITCuba 2016

During the event’s closing ceremonies, Maria del Carmen Orellana, commercial director, Ministry of Tourism announced that FITCuba 2016 will be held in Havana next May with a theme of promoting “Cuban Culture.” She also announced that Canada will be the event’s guest nation.

Excursions

While some tourists elect to stay entirely on the resort, there are authentic and memorable local excursions that travellers should consider. PAX experienced several of them while attending FITCuba 2015:

  • Patria Sugar Mill and steam train ride to Rancho Palma: Explore the historic sugar mill site and board the open-car steam train for the 20 minute ride through the sugarcane countryside. Watch sugar cane being pressed, sample the juice and enjoy a delicious Cuban Meal in the tranquility of a shaded grove at Rancho Palma.   
  • Catamaran excursion: With Cuba’s pristine waters and the increasing focus on nautical tourism, this excursion is a must do!  The 80-foot Catamarans are stable, comfortable and afford panoramic views of the shoreline and sea. The bar is open, the snacks are delicious, snorkeling gear is provided and the enthusiasm aboard is contagious. 
  • La Redonda Lake: Board a speed boat for a thrilling ride across La Redonda Lake into the narrow winding channels through dense mangroves.  The natural beauty is amazing, with orchids growing from the mangrove limbs, hanging moss and massive termite mounds among the sights.
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