HAVANA – The fad of visiting Cuba has been going through a “golden age” over the past two years with record tourist arrivals, a bubble that had threatened to deflate after several US airlines decided to reduce or suspend their routes to the island but which is now getting much-needed oxygen from the cruise industry.
In 2016, Cuba – for the first time – broke the four million tourist barrier, of whom 112,000 traveled to the island on cruise ships. Cruise routes from the US had been suspended in 1961 but were reestablished last May and this year it is expected that 370,000 cruise passengers will travel to the Caribbean nation.
“In the next two or three years, I’m putting my money completely on the cruise ships because it’s the way the tourist can bring his own room, given the problem with the (local) scarcity of hotel rooms,” Cuban economist Jose Luis Perello, an expert in the sector, told EFE.
Cruise ships, said Perello, allow travelers to engage in “exploratory tourism,” since they don’t spend more than two days in Havana – and some also visit Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba – and get to know the country in a superficial way without suffering the “inconveniences” at some of the tourist facilities that are still being developed.
The tourism boom over the past two years, unleashed by the thawing diplomatic and economic relations with the US, has highlighted the island’s deficiencies: lack of hotel rooms, mediocre services and precarious infrastructure.
Nevertheless, the high demand has resulted in a 50 percent hike in hotel prices all over the island, although in Havana room prices have tripled or quadrupled without any improvement in quality, a situation also to be found in many restaurants.
While Cuba is trying to make up for those deficiencies, a cruise guarantees visitors adequate attention to their quality standards: a comfortable room, included meals and amenities such as a swimming pool and Wifi, which are not available at many hotels in Cuba.
“It’s a comfortable boat, great service and we really enjoyed it,” Joy – a London resident who visited Cuba with her husband on the British cruise vessel Thomas Cook, which was making a two-day stop in Havana – told EFE.
About their brief stay in the Cuban capital, Joy said after getting off the boat that “it’s just like the 1940s and 1950s. It’s pretty and exotic.”
“We’re going to take a tour in an antique American car, a walk through Old Havana and in the evening we’ll visit the Tropicana cabaret,” Ian told EFE.
The Londoners’ experience in Havana is a typical one for cruise passengers, with visitors getting a good impression of the island without being faced with delving too deeply into the – often disappointing, shortage plagued – local reality.
Other tourists, however, like Gregory, from Germany, complained about the poor service he received at the restaurant of the hotel where he was staying. “They took too long to serve us and the food was cold when it arrived,” but he said he was glad to get to know a place as “exotic” as Cuba a little bit better.
So far this year, Cuba has welcomed more than a million tourists, meaning that it’s on track to fulfill its target of 4.2 million visitors by the end of 2017.
The euphoria among many about visiting Cuba contrasts with the recent decision by low-cost US airlines such as Silver and Frontier to suspend their routes to the island, while other larger airlines like American and Jet Blue have reduced the number of flights and have switched to smaller aircraft when flying to the island.