Canada is still number one in Cuba’s books as some 290,000 Canadians flocked to the island country known for its smooth beaches, friendly people and safety during the first few months of 2023.
That was one of many updates shared by Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Mr. Juan Carlos Garcia Granda, who met with trade media on Tuesday (March 14) for lunch at Cibo Wine Bar in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood.
The casual gathering, organized by the Cuba Tourist Board’s Toronto office, brought attention to the fact that Cuba, coming out of COVID-19, is on a solid road to recovery as tourism reopens.
Cuba, as of now, has recovered 80 per cent of the Canadian traffic it saw in 2019, explained Mr. Garcia Granda, who was joined by Yanier Castellanos (Consul General of Cuba in Toronto); Hector Igarza (Cuba’s Ambassador to Canada), Lessner Gomez (Director of the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto) and others.
The goal, this year, is to get back to (and surpass) that 1-million mark that Cuba once achieved with Canada in pre-pandemic times.
The new Cuba
Tourism-dependent Cuba, like many countries, faced obstacles at the height of the pandemic as its main market, Canada, was largely absent due to Ottawa’s (now lifted) travel restrictions.
But the Spanish-speaking island country known for its white-sand beaches, cigars, mojitos, vintage cars and salsa music didn’t stop evolving, using the last two years to beef up infrastructure and renovate several thousand hotel rooms.
The outcome of these efforts is new and improved Cuba, as PAX saw first-hand during a visit to Varadero and Havana last December with Canadian travel advisors and Transat.
Cuba, which lifted all COVID-related travel restrictions in early 2022, is full of new and improved infrastructure, including faster and more accessible Wi-Fi.
Internet is now free at hotels in Cuba, eliminating those time-limited, pay-per-use scratch cards that were required for surfing the web in pre-pandemic times.
Visitors using the new Internet, which kicked in last summer, are now handed a receipt at check-in that displays a unique log-in name and password (one for each device).
Complimentary internet access, 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, depending on the hotel property, may now extend beyond lobbies, where visitors would once huddle to access whatever signal they could find.
It’s a work in progress, as we saw during our visit. Not all resorts can promise connectivity in every room (yet), but progress is progress. And that’s a good thing.
Cuba’s “competitive edge”
Investments from the private sector are also working with small and medium-sized companies in Cuba to improve the quality of tourism services, Mr. Garcia Granda explained.
The push, right now, is escorted tours that go beyond the typical all-inclusive packages, the Minister said, noting Cuba’s “competitive edge” as a destination that offers rich historical and cultural activities.
Cuba’s latest marketing campaign, “Unica Cuba,” which launched last year, leans into this concept by promoting local culture, history, traditions, beaches, nature, safety, and most importantly, people as the best ambassadors of Cuban tourism.
“Cultural life in Cuba is amazing and we will portray that part of Cuba even more,” Mr. Garcia Granda said, speaking in Spanish.
Wellness & adventure
Cuba is also focused on developing its sustainability initiatives, as well as wellness offering, such as tours that specialize in nature, cycling and sports, he said.
PAX experienced a handful of amazing outdoor adventures that can be found in Cuba during our visit last year.
Some of the activities we enjoyed included swimming in Cueva de Saturno, or “Saturn Cave,” snorkelling over a barrier reef at Playa Coral, and driving speedboats up the Rio Canimar, a river that flows between two jungle-like hills near the city of Matanzas.
Visitors can also easily combine an urban getaway in Cuba’s capital of Havana, for example, with an all-inclusive vacation in beach towns like Varadero.
Cayo Largo now open
As for new products, the Blue Diamond-managed Cayo Largo - a small island off of Cuba’s southern coast, home to just 11 hotels - is now open for business.
As announced last year, Sunwing Travel Group was granted exclusive rights by the Cuban government to run the island's entire hotel inventory – 11 properties, totalling 1,348 rooms – for the Canadian market as part of 10-year agreement.
Offering many hospitality concepts, including both entertainment and revamped rooms, Memories Cayo Largo, Starfish Cayo Largo, and The Villas Linda Mar and Marina were among the first hotels to welcome guests last year.
Mohamad Fawzi, managing director for Blue Diamond Resorts Cuba, has previously described Cayo Largo as "the first step of a major turnaround in the hospitality industry" in the region.
Outside of tourism, global brands are largely absent from Cuba. But that may soon change as the Cuban government warms up to allowing major companies to open up shop, said Mr. Garcia Granda, expressing his hope to one day see a Tim Hortons in Cuba.
“Canadians would be happy to hear that,” he said.
Cuba, meanwhile, is looking to recover its position in the Caribbean as a destination for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE).
The country’s beaches, warm weather and history will all play a part in activating the MICE market, Mr. Garcia Granda said.
What travellers can look forward to, for now, is the modernization of Cuba’s tourist visa, which the Minister said should be completely digital by October this year.