HAVANA — Last year Cuba welcomed 3.5 million visitors, 1.3 million of which were Canadian in spite of a decline in travellers due to the drop in Canadian currency and a mild winter.
“Cuba has a long history of friendship with Canada and we will never forget Canada’s support,” said Cuba’s Tourism Minister, Manuel Marrero, who opened the 36th annual FITCuba tourism fair on May 3. Putting to rest any concerns that the Canadian market will be displaced with the country’s increase in arrivals, particularly American, the Minister went on to say, “Canada has been Cuba’s #1 outbound market since 1998. 44% of Cuba’s arrivals are repeat customers. Canada is a crucial market to us and remains our top priority.”
As travel restrictions are slowly lifted on U.S. travellers, the interest to visit Cuba has resulted in a 17% increase in travellers in 2015 (161,233 of which were American), as well as a 13% increase in the number of tourists staying in facilities affiliated with the Ministry of Tourism. The total tourism revenue in 2015 was US$2.8 billion. To date Cuba has welcomed over one million foreign tourists, a 13.5% surge over the same period last year.
Cuba is a popular destination and growing quickly noted the Minister. “Improving our tourism product is our top priority. We have 126 new investment projects in the works, 76 of which are foreign management joint hotel ventures signed with 17 international chains. Another 23 contracts will be authorized soon. We are speeding up all investment projects in order to meet hotel demands.”
While new hotel product in Cuba is currently coming at a rate of 2,400 rooms per year, by 2019 that figure should double to 5,000 rooms per year. One-third of the tourist reception capacity will be led by Gaviota Tourism Group, which plans to add 30 new hotels by 2018. The demand is huge, especially in Havana, particularly for four- and five-star product. Minister Marrero also noted that priorities include restoring and updating existing facilities, in addition to building new properties.
Another way in which Cuba will meet growing demand is through the non-state sector as a complement to state-run tourism. “Cuba has one type of tourism in which all forms of management participate equally,” stated the Minister. This includes 16,000 rooms, 1,700 private restaurants (Paladares) and 18 non-agricultural cooperatives.
Cuba’s docking facilities are also undergoing expansion and construction projects to meet the growing demand of cruise ships, managed mainly by Canadian and European companies. May 1 saw the arrival of Fathom, which sailed from Miami to Havana, the first cruise ship to sail off the U.S. coast in over half a century. The Havana airport – in addition to other airports across Cuba – will undergo an expansion to accommodate the increase in air service to Cuba, including direct flights between Beijing and Havana.
Ms. Bardish Chagger, Minister of Tourism Canada, met with Cuban government officials and representatives of small- and medium-sized Canadian enterprises based in Cuba to promote trade. Minister Chagger spoke of the strong and enduring friendship between the two nations and announced an internship program between Cuba and Canada, though no dates were confirmed.
During Canada’s honourary luncheon, Minister Marrero spoke about the successful meetings with Canadian tour operators. “We reviewed customer surveys and discussed the issues Canadian travellers have when traveling to Cuba and we are committed to improving Cuba’s hotel and food services.” He also stated that ground handling services would not increase for Canadian tour operators.
FITCuba 2016 was attended by 53 countries and 173 journalists, including 200 travel industry reps from the United States, making it the largest attendance in its history.