When it comes to smooth, seaweed-free beaches, friendly people and safety, Cuba is the cream of the crop.
The island country that gave birth to the mojito is gearing up for another winter, and judging by the air lift from Canada, it looks like it will be a busy one.
This 2023-24 season, there will 21 Canadian gateways serving Cuba, amounting to more than 200 flights per week (more than 5,000 flights for the season), representing a growth rate of 12 per cent.
“Winter is coming, and Cuba is ready,” said Lessner Gomez, director of the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto, speaking to PAX Thursday night (Nov. 16) at waterfront Palais Royale, where a “Unica Appreciation Night” for travel advisors was held.
UNICA means unique, Gomez explained, and it’s a word the tourist board, for more than a year now, has been using to promote Cuba as part of its “Unica Cuba” campaign, which lists local culture, history, traditions, beaches, nature, safety, and above all, people as the best ambassadors of Cuban tourism.
“The people, the food, the rum, the cigars, the culture…we want to translate all of that,” Gomez said. “The water is blue, the sand is white. It’s going to be a great winter.”
Gunning for 1 million
Canada is Cuba’s number one international market, and driving the momentum this year is an ambitious (but achievable) goal of reaching one million Canadian visitors.
The year-to-date numbers, already, are coming in strong.
Total arrivals to Cuba from January to October this year reached 1,973,083 tourists from around the world, while the total number of Canadians was 748,976, representing 38 per cent of all visitors.
One million sounds like a lot, but it's not impossible. In 2019, Cuba's best year, the destination saw 1.1 million Canadians fly in, Gomez said.
Bolstering the vision are flights to Cuba from airports across Canada, operated by Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat, Hola Sun/Caribe Sol, and Sunwing which, this winter, returns to Cienfuegos, a city with colonial-era buildings on Bahía de Cienfuegos, a bay on Cuba’s south coast.
All the hotel updates
Thursday night’s event, in a dining room illuminated by string lights – including blue, red and white flood lights, reflecting the colours of Cuba’s national flag – welcomed 250 guests, including travel advisors, tour operators, media and hotel partners.
A trade show kicked off the night’s festivities, which also included dinner, live music and dancers.
The event was a great opportunity to highlight Cuba’s latest hotel updates.
The all-inclusive Meliá Trinidad Peninsula, which literally opened yesterday, is a new, 401-room hotel on Ancon Beach, some 15-20 minutes away from Trinidad's old town, a World Heritage Site.
With 14 bars and restaurants, the property is particularly committed to the MICE segment, offering four venues that can accommodate more than 1,400 attendees.
Meliá, which is expanding in Cuba, has another concept in Old Havana, the renovated Hotel Sevilla, which isn’t open yet (but will be in time for winter, Gomez said).
In Holguin, there’s the Sol Turquesa Beach, a hotel that recently renovated (it, too, is managed by Meliá).
In Cayo Paredon – a “new destination close to Cayo Coco,” Gomez said – there’s the new Vila Gale, a Portuguese hotel chain that opened two weeks ago. The destination also has the Grand Aston Cayo Paredon Hotel.
Cayo Cruz, meanwhile, has the Marina Plaza and Spa Hotel, which is not an all-inclusive, but ideal for long stays, while Blue Diamond Resorts has added a property in the Jibacoa area – some 60 km east of Havana – the Starfish Jibacoa, which is the former Villa Tropico next to Memories Jibacoa. It also has been upgraded.
In Cayo Santa Maria, The One Gallery hotel promises arts and Cuban culture. It’s next to the main stage in Cayo Santa Maria, where nightlife activities and festivals unfold.
“It’s an entertainment hotel,” as Gomez put it.
Varadero, known for its rows of all-inclusive resorts, also now has the 531-room Grand Aston Varadero.
Key to Cuba’s strategy has been the advancement of its infrastructure, from hotel renovations to Wi-Fi upgrades, and the stabilization of food and ingredient supply, Gomez said.
Internet, for one, is now free at all hotels in Cuba, replacing those time-limited, pay-per-use scratch cards that were required in pre-COVID times.
Visitors using Cuba’s “new” Internet, which went live in 2022, are now handed a receipt at hotel check-in that displays a unique log-in name and password (one for each device).
Complimentary internet, once logged in, can last for up to two (or more) hours, depending on the hotel’s policy. But the time can be topped up, for free, when needed.
Wi-Fi in Cuba, at some hotels, now extends beyond lobbies, where visitors would once huddle to access whatever signal they could find.
It’s still a work in progress though, as PAX learned while touring Varadero and Havana last year. Not all resorts can promise connectivity in every room (yet), but progress is happening (which is a good thing).
Gomez said Cuba is improving the internet by installing fiber optic lines (which is already active in some areas).
This project is expected to be completed by the end of next year, he said.
All airports in Cuba have internet, and the next step is to have Wi-Fi on catamaran tours and buses so tourists can share their experience on social media.
One of Cuba’s biggest challenges, Gomez said, has been stabilizing supplies, which has progressed by increasing cargo from Canada and allowing import deals with hotel chains.
“We’re going to make sure the food quality is there,” he said.
Blue Diamond Resorts, via parent company Sunwing Travel Group, helped advance this mission after securing its own international import license, enabling it to import goods into Cuba, like peanut butter, Nutella or Heinz ketchup – items that aren’t available at most resorts in the country.
This has been a selling point for Cayo Largo, a small island off Cuba’s southern coast, where Blue Diamond manages 11 properties for the Canadian market.
Cayo Largo, known for its unspoiled beaches, prime snorkeling and diving areas and sea turtle conservation centre, has been generating a lot of interest, Gomez said.
“Visitors are really happy,” he said. “The beaches are amazing, there’s quality food.”
Cuba also has events and festivals all year round, including the Havana Jazz Festival, Santiago de Cuba Fire Festival, and the Havana Cigar Festival.
Additionally, there’s the Cuba International Tourism fair (FITCUBA), which will be held next year in Cayo Coco, and the Canadian travel trade community is invited to attend.
New specialist program
The Cuba Tourist Board, which plans to host more FAM trips for travel advisors in the coming months, unveiled a new specialist program for the trade last night.
The program, supported by Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, is loaded with training modules that are designed to help advisors advance their knowledge of Cuba.
Completing the course will result in points, which agents can then exchange for things like accommodations and room upgrades in the destination.
Gomez told PAX that the program will officially launch in January 2024.