Some thoughts on my first visit to Cuba and how U.S. hotel companies might fit in.
This week I’ve been in Havana, Cuba, at the inaugural South American Hotel Investment Conference Cuba. I’ve been so curious about Cuba for years, even before the U.S. travel embargo was lifted last year. Since then, I’ve been champing at the bit to go. Finagling a journalist visa wasn’t a simple process, but finding a flight was, and entering from the U.S. was easy.
I approached this trip both as a tourist and as a reporter looking at the hotel development prospects around the island.
From a tourism perspective, I found Havana wonderful, welcoming, difficult at times, complicated in some ways, sad in some ways and joyful in so many more. In other words, I loved it.
I’ll share one quick story: On Sunday afternoon, I was walking along some residential streets near the Havana Libre Hotel (formerly the Hilton, where Fidel Castro camped out after landing on Havana’s shores post-revolution). My friend and I passed the most crumbling, dilapidated, formerly lovely house on the street. We asked the woman in front of it what it was (it looked like at one time it should have been an embassy or at least a rich person’s mansion) and she replied, “My house. Come in.”
So we did. There was no door, there was no electricity, there were holes where the roof had caved in and puddles dampened the main hallway. But our new friend led us back to meet her brother who lived in one apartment, and her mother in another. We followed her up crumbling stairs to her apartment and sat and visited for a while, hearing about the art on her walls, her two kids and the smoking habit she can’t kick. When I commented on a formerly grand staircase, she beckoned me over to see, through the crashed-out ceilings, where a formerly grand stained-glass window had been.
As we left, she said “mi casa, su casa,” and she meant it—obviously she did, she had just invited two tourist lookie-loos right on in and offered us coffee.
When I told this to a Miami-based journalist who’s an expert on and former resident of Cuba, she said simply, “THAT is Cuba.”
The next day, Cuban architect and historian Eusebio Leal Spengler spoke to our conference group, and his words spoke volumes on Cuba’s place in the world right now, teetering on the edge of a tourism explosion.
“Havana is a state of mind,” he said through translation. “People are the most important attraction here.”
Leal is known for the reconstruction and historic renovation work he has done in Old Havana, restoring formerly glorious buildings to structural integrity and, most importantly, usefulness for the many people who live there.
“Old Havana has become a beautiful city, and the most beautiful thing is that it is inherited by all the people who live there,” he said. “Tourism wants everything for itself—it wants everything to be a hotel or a restaurant. But the real thing is … the public wants a school, a theater, a house, a habitat.”
After just one short visit, I can say I hope so much that those principles will guide the country’s tourism growth plans, which are extensive. I don’t want to return in five years and see hordes of cruise ship passengers disembarking in Old Havana with cameras clicking away as they move en masse toward the McDonald’s that will inevitably arrive.
And I don’t think it will happen. Government agencies of course control all aspects of development in Cuba, and while they definitely seek strong international partners, they are controlled in where they want to place hotels, golf courses and marinas.
That control is what might keep U.S. hotel companies skittish to come to Cuba, in my opinion, once they’re officially able to. U.S.-based companies likely are all exploring opportunities here in Cuba (in official ways, of course), but very few are talking publicly about it these days. This is a big difference from last year, when as soon as the tourism embargo lifted, hotel company owners were happy to talk about their big plans for Cuba.
There are plenty of partnership and joint-venture opportunities to put hotels all around Cuba, but the process will be long and the restrictions fairly tight. Maybe the Hiltons and Marriotts of the world won’t like the typically five-year management agreements that Cuban officials favor?
Maybe it’s a political issue—for all we know, U.S. President Donald Trump could decide tomorrow to restore the embargo in full and slam the door on Cuba once again (though this column by Ivar Yuste from a few months ago takes a different viewpoint).
At any rate, Cuba very much is on a precipice, and its master plan for growing tourism (numbers are up to 4 million international visitors annually and growing) is ambitious. I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit now, and I hope that whatever happens, it’s the Cuban people who benefit most.
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