Cuba Has The Potential To Be a Luxury Travel Destination, Some Day
Nikki Ekstein, Bloomberg – Aug 11, 2016 2:00 pm
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The Hotel Inglaterra has been one of the best places to stay in Havana
since it opened in 1875. Its colonial façade and bright neon signage fit
right in with the nearby capitol building and Gran Teatro, and its guest
book includes famous names like Cuban national hero José Martí.
There’s just one catch: the property is stuck in time, just like the
rest of Cuba. You’ll have to pay $312 a night for what looks like a
Holiday Inn, albeit one with pretty terracotta tiled floors.
In the six months since independent travel from the United States was
officially whitelisted, tour operators have debuted itineraries and
major airlines (like American and Jet Blue) have scheduled their first
flights into Havana. By the end of the year, the Inglaterra will be
re-christened as part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, becoming the
company’s second hotel after a Four Points by Sheraton opened earlier
But when it comes to hotels in Cuba, there’s almost always a catch, just
like there is at the Inglaterra—and that problem isn’t likely to go away
any time soon.
Just ask Leo Ghitis, owner of one of Costa Rica’s most luxurious hotels,
Nayara Springs. When he was approached to open a property in Havana, he
took the first flight out. “I received a tremendously warm welcome,” he
said about his meetings with the Minister of Tourism and top government
officials. “But even after getting the red carpet treatment, I had to
decide to postpone my plans,” he said, citing major infrastructural
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to settle for mediocre
accommodations should you choose to visit. Despite the island’s many
challenges, comfortable and beautiful options do exist if you know where
to look for them. And if you play your cards just right, a five-star
trip to Cuba can be well within reach.
Don’t Go It Alone
Just because you can buy a plane ticket and fly to Havana with your
significant other doesn’t mean that it’s the best place for a
“Many of the larger reputable hotels in Havana are reserving their rooms
only for big group trips of 40 to 60 travelers,” said Melissa Biggs
Bradley, Founder and CEO of Indagare, a members-only travel company that
has been coordinating trips to Cuba since 2011. The reason, she says, is
that they “prefer to sell a few big blocks of rooms instead of one-off
reservations,” which results in little availability for independent travels.
There are other benefits to going with a group, aside from having an
organizer who can help you navigate all the required paperwork. Bradley
advises DIY travelers that bookings made on many hotel websites can get
bumped or cancelled by the tourism authority—often without warning.
Plus, she says photos can be misleading; a perfectly nice-looking hotel
may be subject to frequent water shut-offs or power outages. (Those who
aren’t members of Bradley’s organization can book luxury trips via Ker &
Downey and Cazenove + Loyd.)
If you’re dead set on going without a group, book through Cuba Travel
Network, which guarantees all of its reservations by selling rooms from
pre-assigned blocks. But plan on booking at least three months ahead.
“There are wonderful places to stay in Havana with five stars, but the
demand is high,” said CTN sales agent Javier Arevalo. As he flipped
through availability at Havana’s most luxurious hotels—the Saratoga,
Iberostar, and the Melia—he found slim inventory through the month of
Consider a Cruise
Pursuing a project in Cuba has unparalleled logistical challenges. All
staff need to be hired through a government-run agency that charges
hoteliers roughly $700 a month per employee—but keeps a majority of that
sum for itself. Bonuses for employees who deliver good service are
strictly forbidden, which means there’s little incentive to provide a
five-star hospitality experience. What’s worse, supplies on the island
are limited in quality and availability, and business owners are
prohibited from importing what they can’t buy locally.
There’s one categorical exception to all these rules: cruises.
The leader thus far is Fathom, a volunteerism-oriented cruise line owned
by Carnival, with week-long itineraries that dock in Havana, Cienfuegos,
and Santiago de Cuba. The cabins on the 704-passenger Adonia are
brand-new, with floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies and access to
numerous hot tubs on the pool deck.
Starting in January 2017, there will be an even more alluring option for
luxury-seekers: yacht-based cruises with Ponant. The itineraries are
still being finalized, but the company says the seven- and eight-night
voyages will stop in Havana and Santiago and sail on the 64-guest
flagship, Le Ponant. The cabins are small but sleek, with
nautical-inspired décor and satellite phones (which are especially handy
in disconnected Cuba).
Hotels around the world are afraid of Airbnb’s competition, but in Cuba,
home sharing came first.
“Cubans have been opening their doors to all types of travelers from all
over the world for more than 20 years through the country’s existing
cases particulares (private homestays) network,” said an Airbnb
spokesperson, who claimed that the company is learning more from Cuban
hosts than the hosts are learning from Airbnb’s hospitality experts.
Rooms in private homes—beautiful ones—can cost as little as $44, and
offer an opportunity to connect with locals in meaningful ways. And
thanks to a transparent booking system and satisfaction guarantees, many
of the question marks associated with hotels simply don’t apply. It’s
one of the best options for discerning travelers, both in Havana and beyond.
Wait Out the Rush
If you can resist the temptation to book the first commercial flights
out of the U.S.—they depart on Aug. 31—you might find it worthwhile.
For one thing, overcrowding has become an issue. Even before Obama
okayed independent trips this March, the country had already seen a
record-breaking million travelers in the first quarter of the year. One
report from the New York Times discovered that some travelers were
sleeping in taxi drivers’ back seats for lack of better options. So
waiting for the Cuba to put finishing touches on some of its 50,000
planned hotel rooms may not be a bad idea.
Infrastructure will also get better with time. A key example: Wi-Fi
Ghitis, the hopeful hotelier, described deep frustration at the quality
of Wi-Fi on each of his recent visits: “It can take several hours,
literally, to be able to see your email,” he said. “If you remember when
AOL started with dial-up, that’s what it’s like. And you get
disconnected every one or two minutes.”
That’s if you’re lucky, he claimed—most hotels don’t have Wi-Fi at all.
This problem is being phased out: last month, the country began
installing its first public Wi-Fi hotspots across the island.
None of this means that Cuba’s stuck-in-time character is in danger of
“Cuba’s not going to change tomorrow—or in two years,” said Cuba Travel
Network’s Arevalo, a lifelong local. But he’s optimistic for what his
country has to offer. “People are already going to Cuba, loving it, and
wanting to go back again and again. We’re busy every day and we’re
thankful for that.”
Source: Cuba Has The Potential To Be a Luxury Travel Destination, Some