The closing of 2016 showed the first signs of a phenomenon that is surprising for many, inexplicable for others and definitely promising for the largest island in the Caribbean. Cuba ended 2016 with 4 million tourists and the first quarter of the year shows a growth of 15% in relation to the previous year, which makes possible to predict that the island will quickly reach 5 million tourists per year.
As it is known, I have been dedicating already some years to studying the development and future of hotels and tourism in Cuba, an epic that began at the beginning of 2009 with the invaluable contribution of the Cuban authorities, hotel groups and, why not, of Cubans in general, always so willing, friendly and loquacious.
The first years were about research and exploration touring practically all the island from west to east. From Havana towards the east, to my beloved Santiago de Cuba, visiting Baracoa, Bayamo, Mayarí, Guardalavaca, Holguin, Las Tunas and the Keys of Jardines del Rey (Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo). On the other side of the island, Trinidad, Playa Ancón, Cienfuegos, Jaguá and the inevitable visit to Santa Clara, not forgetting Ciego de Avila.
From Havana to the West, the land of the best tobacco in the world, Pinar del Río, touring the valley of Viñales.
Of course, several visits to the famous Varadero were repeated, which today houses what is undoubtedly one of the great marinas of the world.
There is still much to visit beyond the Isla de la Juventud, which I have not visited yet.
This experience allows me to know firsthand not only the potential that Cuba presents for the development of tourism in its land, but clearly also the conviction, dedication, motivation and expertise that is found both at the level of government and almost the entire population to turn its enormous natural, cultural, historical and human resources into an overwhelming transformation that will make Cuba one of the main tourist destinations in the world, probably the second destination of Latin America in the coming years.
Some figures on tourism in Latin America
Let’s take a look at this quick overview of some of the main Latin American destinations in terms of annual arrivals (in millions of tourists):
• Mexico: 35.0 • Brazil: 6.6
• Argentina: 6.1 • Dominican Republic: 6.0
• Chile: 5.6 • Cuba: 4.0
• Peru: 3.7 • Costa Rica: 2.9
There is no doubt Mexico plays in another league, it does it from long time ago and it will continue doing so. Its proximity to the United States, with its pros and cons, puts the country in different conditions to the rest of the region. Of course this does not shadow the efforts that the country has been doing for years to keep up with the variety and quality of its products.
In the last years some peculiarities stand out.
Brazil, although showing growth thanks to hosting 2016 Olympic Games, has remained practically flat for many years.
Argentina, which revealed an impressive development in the period 2002-2011, still fails to show that the takeoff time has arrived, at least in terms of percentage growth, which the destination is certainly prepared to show.
Chile is undoubtedly one of the most striking growths. It is enough to remember that in 2010 it did not reach 3 million tourists, receiving 2.8 million that year. What must be observed is how the development of tourism coming from Argentina will continue to behave, which in 2016 represented a whopping 2.9 million, that is 51.8% of total arrivals, mainly encouraged by a combination of the country´s tourist attractions and shopping alternatives at prices that cannot be found in Argentina.
The future of tourism in Cuba
Cuba is undoubtedly the other great news of the region. In 2014 the country received just below 3 million tourists. Remember that in December that year the surprising news about the beginning of the negotiation process between Cuba and USA was jointly announced by the two presidents at that time, Raul Castro and Barak Obama.
Some small changes have taken place since then: the restoration of the embassies of the two countries, the authorization of charter flights first and regular flights in the last months, the arrival of the first cruises of American companies, the facilitation of travel permits for Americans through some of the twelve reasons that authorize them to travel to the island and the return of a hotel group to manage properties on the island, the missing Starwood (purchased by Marriott in 2016), not much more.
The embargo continues there and with it the restrictions that stop American citizens from travelling like tourists or investing in Cuba. However, tourist arrivals in Cuba have grown 34.7% in the last two years and our forecasts estimate 18% for this 2017, which would lead to 4.7 million tourists arriving this year. This would consolidate Cuba as one of the six main destinations in Latin America.
Among the issues to be taken into account and which make it easier to understand what is coming, we can mention that the growth of visitors from the United States continues to raise and is becoming the second tourists emitter to the island after Canada, the main historical contributor, but displacing “old acquaintances” like Germany, England, Italy and France.
If valuable as proof, my experience in the American Airlines flight that took me to Havana last March, shows that over 80% of the seats in the plane (Boeing 737-800), that was full, was occupied by citizens of American origin.
Not to mention the streets of old Havana, or its main tourist attractions: La Bodeguita del Medio, the Floridita or the Tropicana, among others, where getting a reservation becomes increasingly complicated. Of course it becomes unthinkable to go without reservation to restaurants that are becoming more and more popular and famous among travelers. By the way, San Cristóbal, La Guarida and Cocinero should not to be missed.
Going back to what is coming, we said already in 2015 that Cuba would have 10/12 million tourists in the coming years. Everything seems to confirm that this will happen sooner rather than later.
Opportunities in Cuba
Driven by what happens and will happen with tourism on the island, opportunities are multiplying everywhere. Not only for hotel groups, chains, operators and investors, but also for the professionals needed both for the development of new hotels and the remodeling that will be carried out, such as architects, designers, construction companies, industry suppliers and an endless number of suppliers of further products and services.
On the other hand, the mixed developments that will include second residences offer for interested people from all over the world opens up a myriad of opportunities for real estate developers, golf course designers and builders, and entertainment offers of all kinds.
In the field of demand for expansion and new infrastructure, the picture is also immense.
Everything confirms that the time has come to break down skepticism, forget prejudices, end preconceptions and go for the opportunities that, for a long time, will exceed the most optimistic expectations.
The thing is that Cuba is a very particular phenomenon and there is no time left to delay the decision to be part of it.