Cuba will attract more tourists with U.S. deal, needs to modernize
Havana, Cuba. (Fotolia)
Salsa music and cigar smoke swirl round the grand courtyard of Havana's famous Hotel Nacional, and guests enjoy stunning views out over the "Malecon" seafront promenade and the ocean beyond.
But inside, many of its rooms are shabby and musty, the WiFi is costly and weak, customer service is often indifferent, and the food, while plentiful, is generally dull.
Although Havana is loaded with charm, great music and architectural jewels, there is a shortage of quality hotel rooms and restaurants, hire cars, taxis and other services.
Tour operators hope a fledgling detente between Cuba and the United States, announced last month, will lure hundreds of thousands of U.S. tourists to enjoy the island's once forbidden fruits: its white beaches, colonial cities, fine cigars and rum, and the vintage American cars on its streets.
Top 10 all-inclusive resorts for your winter vacation: TripAdvisor
Hottest new beach resorts for winter 2014 - 2015
Quiz: These stars love vacationing in the Caribbean… guess who they are!
They also know that Cuba has to improve its offering.
"There are four or five really nice hotels in Havana which you can count on for a really quality experience, and I think that needs to increase five-, six-fold," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel.
He has brought around 5,000 people to Cuba over the last four years, organizing trips that range from short family visits for Cuban-Americans to holidays designed for art collectors or cigar aficionados.
"You have capacity issues at the airport with everything from luggage getting off flights to the customs process, and so those are all challenges," he said.
The Caribbean island was a favorite of U.S. vacationers in the 1950s, but its tourism infrastructure went into decline in the decades following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and U.S. economic sanctions against Castro's communist government meant Americans could no longer visit.
Even with a revival of market-style reforms in Cuba and investment from Canadian and European hotel companies, the country is not ready for a significant surge in tourism.
"If you think you can come for a luxury Caribbean vacation lying on the beach being waited on hand and foot, it ain't going to happen here, honey," Bonnie Schinagle, 56, joked over breakfast at Havana's recently restored Hotel Capri.
Schinagle, a special educational attorney from New York, was among a group of 28 tourists from across the United States on a week-long educational and cultural visit, now allowed after a relaxation of sanctions in recent years.
They said they had a wonderful time but that Cuba is more for adventurous travelers keen to soak up its unique atmosphere than a typical holiday of beach, spa and golf packages.
The government says international tourism brought in some $2.3 billion in revenue in 2013, up from $1.9 billion in 2009.
Over the same period, the number of hotel rooms rose by less than 2,000 to a total of 52,600 nationwide, although there were several thousand more in the five-star category.
U.S. sanctions still make it illegal for tourists to visit Cuba unless they are Cuban-Americans or join programs known as "people-to-people" tours which are run by licensed operators such as Laverty's and focus on cultural or educational themes.
Of the roughly 450,000 U.S. citizens who went to Cuba in 2013, some 350,000 were Cuban-Americans who typically have relatives here.
As President Barack Obama's administration moves to dismantle sanctions as part of its deal to restore ties with Cuba, many more Americans will be allowed to visit.
Even when they are able to go, U.S. tourists cannot access U.S. bank services or pay with U.S. credit cards, meaning they have to carry cash or travelers checks.
They also find little Internet access, and have no roaming services on their U.S. cellphones.
"We always tell people, when you come down you're entering into the dark zone, and of course Americans aren't exactly accustomed to that!" said Laverty.
Cuba says a record of more than 3 million tourists visited the island last year, up 5.3 percent from 2013.
Canadians have led the way in recent years. About 1.1 million visited in 2013, many of them skipping Havana and flying straight to Varadero east of the capital for a beach holiday with a similar feel to other Caribbean locations.
In second place was Britain, with fewer than 150,000, and Germany and France were third and fourth.
Some travellers are drawn to Cuba precisely because it hasn't mastered mass tourism.
"I always wanted to see Havana, and I wanted to get here before all the Americans come!" said Ray Constable, a haulage contractor from London.
"I also wanted to see whether communism works. We've been all over, and when you see how people live: it doesn't work."
Cuba's tourism ministry said in state media last week that its record year in 2014 shows it must "continue perfecting our work, raising the quality of the services we offer."
For now, tour operators are waiting for the U.S. Treasury to publish new guidelines for travelers that they hope could see U.S. visitor numbers shoot up.
"It's a historic time between our two countries, and people always want to be part of history," said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, which is licensed by the U.S. Treasury and says it has brought some 10,000 visitors to the island since 2000.
"We've been hoping and planning for change for more than a decade."