With the 2014 announcement that the US would seek to normalise relations with Cuba, the future of Cuba’s tourism industry shifted dramatically. While completely normalised tourism relations may still be months or even longer away given the number of important political and economic issues still being negotiated, the sudden thaw between the two nations represents a unique set of challenges – and, ultimately, for some players, opportunity.
While Cuba is new to American tourists, tourism is not new to Cuba. Despite the fact that the country has received relatively few American tourists compared to other destinations in the region, such as Mexico, the UNWTO reports that nearly three million people visited Cuba in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, and a number of international airlines already serve the island country. Air Canada, Air France, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Avianca and Copa Airlines are just a few of the major players currently operating flights to and from Cuba. Even some US-based airlines have offered regular charter flights between Florida and Cuba with increasing frequencies since 2009 as travel restrictions between the US and Cuba started to ease.
The opening up of Cuba presents substantial opportunity for American airlines, as few foreign airlines currently operate direct flights between the US and Cuba (although Air Canada or Copa, for example, would be well positioned to incorporate US-Cuba flights through their existing networks of US flights). Several airlines have already begun planning for the launch of new Cuba routes: United Airlines has announced that Newark and Houston will be the hubs for its Cuba flights, and Jet Blue released the news on 12 February that it would increase its number of charter flights to Havana from three to four per week.
Under the new diplomatic ties, American airlines are only permitted to fly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba once the two countries forge an air travel agreement. It is uncertain how straightforward those negotiations will be. Cuba has a national flag carrier, Cubana de Aviacion, and is expected to seek terms that benefit the airline. It is also unclear what airport fees might be or how much more room Jose Marti International Airport in Havana has for more flights, as the airport already receives virtually all of the country’s international air passengers. This gives the advantage to companies that are in a position to increase capacity before a formal air travel agreement, such as foreign carriers with existing agreements, like Air Canada, as well as US airlines operating charter flights, like Jet Blue and American Airlines.
As with air travel, while Cuba’s lodging sector is not nascent, it likely needs to grow to match the demand that will appear if travel restrictions from the US are lifted entirely. Cuba had approximately 65,000 lodging rooms in 2013, according to Euromonitor International, to host around three million tourists, according to the UNWTO. If the average inbound trip to Cuba is at least five days – a reasonable assumption, given that many visitors originate in countries a long-haul flight away from Cuba – the hotel sector will be approaching capacity already. Furthermore, many sources report that much of the existing Cuban lodging supply may be of a lower calibre than many inbound American tourists will expect.
Unlike in the case of air travel, few major American players have announced any concrete plans for entering the country. Much of this is due to the fact that it takes longer to build a new hotel than it does to organise a new route for an existing plane. Hotel construction also involves much higher initial investment, one that is subject to risk should the political climate around US-Cuban relations cool.
As a result, the biggest winner in lodging in Cuba may turn out to be AirBnB. Since the company functions as an intermediary between inbound travellers and locals renting existing space, AirBnB has a chance to build lodging capacity long before major chains like Hilton, IHG and Marriot can put shovel to dirt on new developments. While AirBnB frequently markets the fact that its hosts provide a local take on a foreign place, that connection may resonate especially strongly with Americans curious about a Cuba that has been taboo to them for so long. The environment for American businesses in Cuba is still uncertain, but some, like Netflix, have already announced operations. Since AirBnB relies on peer-to-peer interactions, very similar to the idea of people-to-people exchanges the governments have considered an approved motive for traveling to Cuba, it seems unlikely that AirBnB would face the kind of resistance it sees in cities like New York and San Francisco. Rather, AirBnB’s success in Cuba will be tied to how quickly internet access and telecommunications more generally improve on the island.
The last group to watch is Cuba’s competitors. As evidenced by outbound tourism flows from the US and the popularity of other Caribbean and Latin American destinations, a warm beach is a powerful draw even independent of the novelty of Cuba. Undoubtedly there will be some tourists who might otherwise have gone to Mexico, Puerto Rico or Jamaica who will choose to visit Cuba. Beyond beaches and convenience, Cuba’s unique history – not to mention the fact that many people in the US also hold Cuban citizenship or have family on the island – also presents a compelling draw for American tourists.
The effect on Mexico will be especially profound. While Puerto Rico has a higher percentage of arrivals from the US relative to the total number of inbound arrivals, the magnitude will be much greater in Mexico as, at 24 million arrivals in 2013, Mexico receives six times as many inbound tourists as Puerto Rico does. While it is too soon to have a comprehensive sense of how affordable Cuba will seem relative to other destinations, large portions of the US are geographically closer to Cuba than to Mexico. Mexico still has some advantages, including more developed tourism and transportation infrastructure as well as the ability to process payments from American-issued credit and debit cards (something that is still pending for Cuba), but these strengths should diminish as political and business ties between Cuba and the US continue to improve. Mexican tourism enterprises may need to offer discounts and engage in heavy advertising stressing Mexico’s unique offerings to avoid seeing a dip in demand.
Of course, the development of tourism – and other industries – in the country is still dependent on continued political will and progress towards normalising relationships between the US and Cuba. What, exactly, that process looks like and how long it takes to unfold will surely be the dominant story in the Cuban tourism industry in the months and years ahead.