Tourists to Cuba Prefer Foreign Hotels to Government-Run Operations
“Non-stop to Varadero!” a taxi driver happily shouts outside the José Martí International Airport in Havana after getting two customers who have just landed on the island. The tourists, who are visiting Cuba for the first time, have a reservation at an all-inclusive resort hotel run by a foreign company. They will not venture out of it until their return home.
With crystaline waters, white sand and a worldwide reputation, Varadero remains the most important Cuban beach resort and the only tourist destination that has experienced significant growth during the current decline of foreign visitors to the island. But the reasons it remains the sector’s driving force could be something other than its natural beauty.
“Several factors are shielding Varadero from the crisis. One of them is that all along the peninsula there are numerous hotels run by prestigious foreign companies and tourists know that these properties meet international standards,” says Rebeca Williams, a Cuban who emigrated after marrying a Brit. At first, her trips to the island were just family visits but she ended up returning and now organizes tour groups.
“When tourists arrive at the airport, whether in Havana or here in Varadero, they know that their hotel room is only a short, safe ride away, and that is an advantage. At other destinations people are forced to transfer to domestic flights and that cools their enthusiasm for venturing to a more faraway spot,” she says.
“After the plane crash in May 2018 I had a lot of tourists who canceled trips that required flights within Cuba and opted instead for Varadero. It’s like an old acquaintance who never disappoints. Even if a place there doesn’t offer good service, it does offer nature and tranquility” adds Williams. “There have also been a lot of reports of tourists being victims of traffic accidents so customers now prefer to stay put.”
Competition in the region is fierce. Cuba is overshadowed by tourist destinations like Cancún and the Dominican Republic. “To be a player in a market like the Caribbean, it’s not enough to show people some photos of old cars or promise a safe stay. You have to make customers fall in love so that, when they leave, they recommend the destination for its high quality. And that is where we still fall short,” she explains.
Recently, the Ministry of Tourism published the figures on this so-called smokestack-free industry which confirmed that Cuba’s most important sun-and-sand tourism desitination had grown 12% in January of this year. This is in contrast to the 9.3% decrease in foreign visitors to the island in 2019.
“Demand has been falling and is now concentrated in the hotels affiliated with recognized foreign brands,” acknowledges a tourism official who prefers to remain anonymous. “This is a phenomenon that is happening even in the domestic tourism market. Now when they buy a package, locals don’t just ask about the price and the hotel’s amenities. They also asks if it’s managed by a foreign firm.”
According to the official, hotels run by foreign companies have acquired good reputations and are better supplied, especially in their food service operations. Additionally, they have foreigners on staff who make sure customer service is very professional and that Cuban workers fulfill their obligations in accordance with the required standards.
“But it can also be said that these foreign firms are more aggressive in advertising their products to the international market. They already have their own voice and a wide network of offices with catalogs that feature their hotels. That is something that takes many years to build and that requires big investments in marketing that Cuba cannot do right now, as it should.”
“But what influences a lot of people are the comments that customers leave on travel sites such as TripAdvisor. And they are much more favorable when the hotel is a joint venture or under foreign management. Unfortunately, hotels under Cuban management have not gotten very high ratings,” he acknowledges. “People want to read visitor comments before they get here and they find that non-Cuban companies have the best ratings.”
Idalmis and Nestor are neither officials nor foreign tourists but have a very strong opinion about why Varadero is doing so well. “We go to an all-inclusive resort two or three times a year because we have two children who live overseas and spend their vacations in Cuba at different times,” says the woman, a retired chemical engineer who had never set foot in a hotel until March 2008, when the ban prohibiting Cuban nationals from accessing hotels was lifted.
“Since then we have stayed in almost all the country’s best hotels,” she proudly claims. “After many snags and disappointments, we now only choose hotels run by Spanish chains Iberostar and Meliá, Canada’s Blue Diamond or other foreign companies. The ones that are under all-Cuban management are not of the same quality.”
“The last time we stayed at a hotel run by Gaviota,” a tourism conglomerate operated by the Cuban military, “we were very disappointed,” she says. “The food was almost rationed even though we paid for an all-inclusive package. There were problems with the room and we often felt the employees were monitoring how many times we went to the buffet table,” she says.
“For the last three years we have stayed only at ’foreign’ hotels,” she adds. “In Varadero there is a larger number of those hotels and many of them offer all-inclusive packages, which makes it our favorite destination.” Usually, the couple’s children purchase a tourist package overseas but at other times the parents themselves make reservations at the offices of a travel agency.
One of Cubatur’s busiest offices is on the ground floor of the Habana Libre Hotel in Havana’s Vedado District. An employee here is showing a catalogue to a newlywed couple hoping for a quiet getaway. She is trying to sell them on a few days in Trinidad or Cienfuegos, or a stay at a Havana hotel, but they only want to know two things: if the hotel is all-inclusive and if it is under foreign management.
Although this is the first time they will have reserved a hotel on the island, which they are able to purchase with savings and with financial help from their respective families, they have a very clear idea of what they want thanks to advice from friends and family. “We are looking for something for three nights, where everything is included and that is run by a prestigious company. That way we know things will turn out better,” says the husband.
“They told us that differences between an all-Cuban management and foreign management — from the amount of butter they give you at breakfast to the cleanliness of the rooms — is huge,” says the young man. “Also, complaining to a foreign company when something isn’t right versus complaining to a Cuban one, especially one run by the military, is not the same.”
In the end the couple decided on a room at Iberostar Selection Varadero, which was a little more expensive than the other options the agent suggested but, as the young woman observed, “it’s a way to play it safe and ensure that a vacation doesn’t turn into one giant hassle.” The scene is repeated several times that morning, with the best selling packages looking a lot like each other.
More than sixty miles away, the two newly arrived tourists who caught the taxi at the airport have already checked into their room at a Meliá hotel in Varadero. There they will find imported towels, tiny containers of imported bath products, small packages of a Spanish-brand jam, and an administrator with a Andalusian accent welcoming customers at the reception desk.