Bloomberg: Now is the best time to visit Cuba

Saturday, 21 July 2018News

A little over a year ago, things looked rosy for Cuban entrepreneurs in the flourishing tourist centers of Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Those with culinary skills were opening ambitious palates (restaurants) and employing large numbers of people to cut and sauté, wash and serve tables. Owners of classic cars polished their 1954 Chevys to start tour companies, and fashion designers, jewelers, painters and sculptors received commissions from Art enthusiasts eager to know a little explored market.

2017 was a record year for visits by foreigners to Cuba. According to government data, the Caribbean island received 4.7 million travelers in those 12 months, received revenues of three billion dollars from tourism and registered a 3% increase in the number of visitors compared to the previous year.

With 619,000 of those visitors arriving from the United States, the spending power of Americans was becoming as evident as when the Andrews Sisters recorded their iconic calypso number about "working for the Yankee dollar" in 1945.

But in June of last year, President Trump announced new travel regulations for Americans, and crowds mixing rum and cola cocktails in Havana declined. For the time that the US administration issued its travel policies updated in November, US tourism to Cuba had plummeted.

"The market froze in a matter of a few weeks," says Chad Olin, founder and executive director of Cuba Candela, a business based on the island's luxury travel segment. "It's amazing how much confusion those headlines caused," he added.

The positive thing is that travelers do not need to restructure their itineraries completely, not when they can have a little help from an agency like Olin. In fact, between reports of fewer crowds, improved infrastructure, and a wider variety of field experiences, now It may be the best time to visit Cuba, no matter where you come from.

Why all travelers can benefit

Travelers of all nationalities can have certain rewards when going to Cuba this year. "If you look at December 2016 (when there was a peak in tourism), there were too many people in Havana," says Olin. "The infrastructure was under pressure in terms of capacity."

It took time to improve the pavement of the streets, organize the service in the restaurants, renovate old hotels, install functional Wi-Fi connections - the list goes on. Now Cubans are able to respond to higher levels of demand, but the crowds are not there. As a result, comments Olin, "getting reservations in restaurants is easier. The five best five-star hotels can be booked with less notice. We are not seeing overbooking as we used to see, when you arrived at a restaurant or a hotel and your table or your room were no longer available. "

For specialized agencies such as Abercrombie & Kent, this translates into more authentic and intimate experiences. "If you go now, you will not have a bus tour after being in line to enjoy the same experience," says Stefanie Schmuddle, vice president for Product Development and Operations. "You can spend more time interacting with places where there is less churn-and-burn."

The experiences themselves are also better and more varied, to the extent that Cubans have learned to anticipate the expectations and interests of travelers. For example, Schmudde sends his clients on catamaran trips with fishermen in Cienfuegos, while Oli is organizing private dinners in chefs' houses and visits with a vinyl record collector that can take them through the history of Cuban music.

Meanwhile, the Cuban creative scene has expanded significantly, with new brands, including Rox950, a minimalist jeweler of semiprecious stones, and Clandestina, a screen printing company in pulóveres that recently opened the first independent design store in the country. Both are launching behind-the-scenes experiences for curious travelers.

Through the harsh travel rules of the United States

Since November, the most common way that Americans have been visiting Cuba is off the table. The trips "People-to-People" (Town to Town) are not today an option to go. There are 12 categories of licenses, from education and humanitarian trips to family visits.

Cruises are an alternative solution, but groups of tour operators offer simplified approaches for those who want to plan a trip by land. Abercrombie & Kent, for example, is resuming the trips of 24 people to Cuba in October, after a long break of ten months that the company used to review the new regulations.

"We wanted to make sure we understood what was changing and what was still possible," explains Schmudde. It turns out that his favorite excursions were still bookable, so his team combined them into a unique and epic itinerary.

Despite the popular belief, traveling independently in Cuba is still possible, and that is the specialty of Cuba Candela de Olin. Generally, it exploits a legal vacuum that allows companies (not individuals) to apply for town-to-people licenses, or uses the so-called Support for the Cuban People licenses ("Support for the Cuban people"). Both, he says, require legal knowledge, particularly because Support for the Cuban People licenses involve vaguely exposed requirements.

"We work with the best lawyers in the country on the rules of travel to Cuba, and our documentation is always reviewed and approved by our legal counsel," explains Olin.

A turn that travelers would not have expected ?: the harsh limitations on places to stay. Almost 100 hotels have been added to the list of restricted entities for Americans in Cuba, including the standard hotel of reference in Havana, the Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski. The beach resorts are categorically out of bounds, since for the North Americans traditional tourism to the island is prohibited.

Do not try to pay under the table, or your luggage can be checked for cash at both ends of your trip, and the caution of the agents would put you at risk for carrying large amounts of US dollars with you.

Instead, Olin uses "boutique hotels that are more intimate, or luxury villas that offer a more authentic experience." Schmudde reserves Meliá hotels not yet restricted throughout the country. In those places, availability is higher and prices have dropped, as a result of the fall in the influx of Americans.

"Hotel prices have dropped considerably for the next months leading up to the peak season," says Charel van Dam, Marketing Director of Cuba Travel Network. "In Havana, the rooms in the central five-star Parque Central hotel have a 35% discount until the end of October," he adds. "In the iconic National Hotel, some rooms even have a 40% discount."

Big bets on the ground

"Tourism promotes a mindset of entrepreneurs among Cubans that was not possible before," says Schmudde. Who else would be buying the Clandestina t-shirts adorned with slogans like 'Oh, Havana', if not foreign visitors. "

"Many Cubans in the tourism area have been affected," he adds. "The people behind the private restaurants, the business owners, the people who rent their homes ... They are the ones who have been hit by the new travel policy in the United States."

Schmudde talks about a guide with whom he works (a "program director", in the language of Abercrombie & Kent) who used the tips that tourism gave him to buy his mother a house in Havana. "That's the kind of effect that changes lives that travelers have had in Cubans," he says.

His company has already sold almost all of its 2018 trips, and has added another eight by 2019.

(Taken from Bloomberg / Translation from Cubadebate)

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