"Cuba is a safe destination and we are ready, said Manuel Marrero Cruz, Prime Minister of the Republic of Cuba.
The Prime Minister was speaking at Gaviota Travel Mart in Cayo Santa Maria, the first held in the country since 2019, and the first since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
With Cuba reopening to tourists as of Nov. 15, the country is banking, quite literally, on Canadians ditching snowsuits for swimsuits and picking Cuba as their desired destination of choice.
"We have to make the most of what Cuba has to offer and nature has blessed us with the best beaches," he said at the event’s opening ceremony on Dec. 8.
While Cuba is once again welcoming tourists, officials acknowledged it will take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels.
"There's no doubt that we still have a long way to go," said Cuba's Minister of Tourism, Juan Carlos García, but he remained optimistic, adding, "there are no limitations for tourism in Cuba."
About 50 thousand visitors have streamed into Cuba since the reopening with 45 weekly flights arriving from Canada. Garcia said the goal is to welcome between 2.2-2.5 million visitors in 2022.
As for the newly-discovered Omicron variant of COVID-19, “We are ready to cope with the variant,” said the PM with the country’s Health Minister, José Ángel Portal Miranda, adding, “We will oversee best practices” and that, “Cuba will not close its borders.”
PCR tests for $30
The Gaviota conference coincided with a FAM trip organized by Hola Sun Holidays during which attendees, including PAX, got a firsthand look at not only some of the new and improved properties, including luxury five-star resorts, in areas like Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Cruz, and Cayo Santa Maria, but also the safety measures in place for visitors.
Protocols include hand sanitizing stations throughout properties, mask mandates in various areas of the hotels, resort staff masked at all times, masks left in rooms for guests, on-site physicians, and reduced capacity for group activities.
"My message to travel advisors in Canada is that Cuba is completely open and ready to receive Canadians, the health protocols are in place and working efficiently," Nieves Ricardo of the Toronto office of the Cuba Tourist Board told PAX.
"The hotel staff is completely vaccinated and more 92 per cent of the entire population is vaccinated; Cubans take the health and safety protocols seriously and they always use masks which was very reassuring to see wherever we went."
Additionally, PCR tests are available at all hotels at a cost of $30, which is significantly less expensive than other destinations.
“Right now, it’s pretty expensive to do PCR tests in other places,” said Allana Haines, a travel advisor with Creative Travel and Tours, “it can be up to $200 per person, so for a family of four, that can be pretty expensive. That's why an awful lot of Canadians aren’t travelling and the destinations are missing Canada.”
For Hola Sun Holidays, the FAM trip was not only a fact-finding and exploratory mission, it was the marking of a major milestone for the company, specifically the anniversary of its third decade in business.
Hola Sun's 30th
"Our 30th anniversary coincides with the 2021 Gaviota Travel Mart and our first FAM trip since COVID-19. This occasion is quite meaningful to us, we are so moved by the hospitality of our partners here in Cuba," Hola Sun general manager Hugo Rocha told PAX.
Celebrating a significant anniversary while in Cuba for a company who brands themselves "the Cuba specialists" is not lost on Rocha as Hola Sun was treated to various celebratory moments at various hotels during the FAM tour.
"These gestures from our partners are evidence of the spirit and hospitality of the Cuban people which generates a genuine friendship, loyalty, and positive vibes," said Rocha.
Positivity was the overall theme of the trip as everyone looked forward to brighter days ahead for tourism.
"I love Cuba, I always have," said Haines. "This week I can see that they are doing their very best to follow all the protocols. I feel, overall, that they're doing very well."
Among the new and notable new properties is Cayo Guillermo Resort Kempinski, which is Cuba's first non all-inclusive resort, located on the shores of Playa Pilar.
"There were two properties I really wanted to see, one was the Kempinkski," said Haines, "and that is because it's a different concept for Canadians to come down here on a non all-inclusive."
Cuba's luxury side
Kempinski is a five-star resort and Ricardo of the Cuba Tourist Board hopes properties like it will change the way Canadians think of Cuba.
"In general, Cuba is perceived as a destination that is like a mass market and if you're looking for luxury you may think Cuba cannot deliver. I think that is not the current situation," she said.
Another innovation is increased access to Wi-Fi with most resorts offering free access in rooms and throughout the grounds.
The other property agents seemed most excited about was Cayo Guillermo’s MGM Gran Muthu Rainbow, one of the country's only LGBTQ+ friendly resorts.
"We have a strong LGBTQ community and they want to go to where they feel safe and comfortable," said Haines, adding, "I walked around and talked to some of the guests and they really enjoyed it, the food was good, they loved the accommodations, and they felt good."
Feeling good was the general vibe of both the FAM and the Gaviota Travel Mart.
"We are very optimistic of the development of tourism in Cuba," said the Prime Minister.
That four thousand more rooms are set to open in 2022 is perhaps the greatest indicator of that optimism, “we must say the proof of confidence in tourism is we did not halt our investment in tourism," said Minister of Tourism Juan Carlos García.
"Life goes on, you just have to respect the protocols,” added Ricardo of the Cuba Tourist Board, “Canadians come to Cuba because of the people, and because they feel safe.”
“Having the best beaches in the Caribbean doesn’t hurt, either.”
PAX had an opportunity to tour several beautiful properties in Cuba. Here’s a brief round-up of the hotels we saw:
Paradisus Santa Maria
This five-star, all-inclusive eco-resort in Cayo Santa Maria reopened on Dec 1.
A modern haven featuring swim-up rooms, a sprawling pool and access to a beautiful beach.
Travellers looking for a more a luxe getaway can upgrade to Royal Service which offers butler service, a pool and beach concierge and luggage packing and unpacking.
Gran Muthu Rainbow Cayo Guillermo
One of Cuba's only LGBTQ+ friendly resorts.
An adults-only, 5+ star property with 248 rooms, this Cayo Guillermo resort features modern and sleek design and comes with six restaurants plus a pool bar and lobby bar.
Hotel officials are working to partner with a Canadian air carrier to offer a "Pride Week" at the hotel in early 2022.
It's not necessary that guests be part of the LGBTQ+ community but must be LGBTQ+ friendly and sign a pledge to be respectful of other guests during their stay.
Hotel La Marina Plaza
This Cayo Cruz boutique hotel features 58 standard rooms and two junior suites, all with a view of the sea.
Lots of activities to be enjoyed at this resort with an on-site bowling alley, disco, and spa.
For the gastronomically-inclined there is a Mediterranean restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, pool and lobby bars, and an ice cream parlour.
Those looking to spend will enjoy the shopping gallery.
Kempinski Cayo Guillermo
A five-star resort, this property in Cayo Guillermo differentiates itself by being Cuba's only non all-inclusive resort.
There are seven Playa Pilar Water Villas offering an extra luxe and private experience where guests will wake up looking out at Punta El Morro.
The most exclusive suite at the hotel (and perhaps all of Cuba) is the Presidential Water Villa Hemingway which boasts 230 square feet of living space, a private butler, and a large terrace with a private infinity pool.
Coral Level Esmeralda
This five-star adults-only resort situated in Cayo Cruz is designed in the style of a 19th Century coffee plantation, surrounded by peaceful tropical gardens and is a perfect place to disconnect (although Wi-Fi is available).
This resort will speak to the eco-conscious traveller as its 121 rooms are free of single use plastics.
Foodies can take advantage of the three specialty restaurants offering gourmet, Mediterranean, and Creole cuisine while those who are included can enjoy a selection of local rums and Havana cigars at the hotel's cigar bar.
This Cayo Coco-based family-friendly resort offers 624 rooms of various sizes and price points including junior suites and suites just over 900 square feet.
A kids club (with babysitting service) and smaller pool will keep the littles occupied while an expansive and gorgeous pool on the property will keep everyone happy.
Those looking to unwind can get a beach-side massage.
Car rentals are available for those who want to explore and basketball and tennis courts are available for the more athletically-inclined.
Asia, Creole, Mediterranean, and Japanese restaurants are on site along with a lobby bar and pool bar.
Swandor Caya Paredón Grande
A brand new all-ages five-star resort in Cayo Cruz with a super sleek and sexy lobby featuring nearly 600 rooms set to be open by Christmas.
Located on a stunning beach and featuring an expansive pool area where guests can partake in water polo, darts, boccia, shuffleboard and pool games.
Those travelling with kids can take advantage of the kids club while night owls will enjoy the open air late night disco. Xone Event Area features concept parties, live DJ performances, and laser shows.
Facing the crystal blue waters of Cayo Coco, this four-star resort for those 16-years-old and up features 328 rooms all with a balcony or terrace.
Try to book the tower restaurant if you can as it offers a stunning view of the entire property.
A majorly spacious pool, all-day entertainment and a white sand beach make it perfect for couples, friends, and groups.
Melia Cayo Coco
A longtime favourite of Canadian visitors with a more than 20-year history and lots of return guests.
This adults-only resort features several two-storey bungalows on stilts alongside the beach overlooking a natural lagoon.
The resort also boasts a fitness centre and Zen and massage area for extra pampering.