Published on September 11th, 2016 | by Mark Chesnut
What Cuba Must Do to Make Travel Better
I was recently contacted by Forbes contributor Andrew Levine, who interviewed me for an article on Forbes.com called “Unsolicited Advice for Cuba: Tips from Top Travel Experts.” Levine — who is also president and CEO of Development Counsellors International, a New York City-based destination marketing firm, wrote a fascinating piece that included opinions from two other travel experts in addition to me. But, as nearly always happens in the world of journalism, there wasn’t enough room to include all of my comments.
So, for those of you who just can’t get enough of my opinions, here’s a complete transcript of Levine’s interview with me, in which I share thoughts about the state of travel in Cuba, and what needs to happen to take it to the next step.
Levine: Are there other countries that Cuba could look to as role models? Who has “done it right” that Cuba could learn from?
Chesnut: Vietnam is a country that, in some ways, has certain conditions in common with Cuba. It had a history of less-than-stellar diplomatic relations with the U.S. government and is also communist, albeit a slightly different interpretation of the concept. It would definitely make sense to look to places like Vietnam, which were “off the map” for many U.S. travelers for a long time, to see how they’ve roared back onto the scene, attracting an ever-wider number of U.S. travelers.
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From a Latin American or Caribbean perspective, of course, there are no other destinations that have been in a situation quite like Cuba when it comes to diplomatic relations and travel restrictions related to U.S. travel. But there are some Latin American countries that perhaps were considered unpopular for other reasons — Colombia, for example, which scared off tourists for decades with guerrilla-related violence — that are now safe, welcoming and growing in popularity. Taking a look at how destinations like Vietnam or Colombia are positioning themselves, what types of travelers they’re targeting and how they’re developing infrastructure, could provide some interesting lessons for Cuba.
What’s your perspective on Cuba’s travel product right now? Is the country ready to welcome a much larger group of Americans?
I just finished interviewing a bunch of U.S.-based travel agents and tour operators for a report in Travel Weekly, and the consensus is that Cuba is a long, long way from having the capacity to adequately welcome larger groups of U.S. visitors — or larger groups from anywhere, for that matter. Demand is up, but there aren’t enough hotel rooms, there aren’t enough airline seats, there aren’t enough ground vehicles for tour groups, and the cruise facilities aren’t large enough for more or larger Cuba cruise ships. As a result, prices are very elevated, to the point where it turns off some travelers. In addition, infrastructure issues — such as unreliable WiFi and electricity in some places — are still a concern. All of these things are still evolving, of course, and they will improve. Flights from the United States are launching now, but it’s not like we’re going to see 10,000 new hotel rooms built in the next year, and you still can’t depend on using your cell phone or credit card once arrived. It’s going to take some time for everything to catch up.
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Imagine you’re Cuba’s Minister of Tourism. What would your top three priorities be right now?
One is education for the local tourism industry — including hotels and tour operators — about the U.S. market. It’s been many decades since they’ve seen so many U.S. travelers on their island, and while they’ve been welcoming Europeans and Canadians, the U.S. traveler profile is different. I’d also focus on infrastructure improvements, including airports — there are some upgrades in the works in Havana already — as well as roadways, hotels, cruise facilities and tourist sites. Number three would be determining the best way to work with the many private-sector investors — including U.S. hotel brands and tour operators — to put together more tourism products and services for the expanding market. There’s a lot of work to be done.
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How should the country go about marketing itself to U.S. travelers?
At this point, if I were the ministry of tourism, I wouldn’t be concentrating much on marketing to U.S. travelers. They’re getting lots of free publicity anyway, and lots of buzz. The other priorities that I mentioned before are more important. More people are already coming from the United States and they need to get ready for even more. Once the supply and infrastructure has caught up with the demand, then I’d start thinking about marketing and positioning. Cuba is a legendary destination for U.S. travelers, and they’ll be able to capitalize on everything from colonial history to Afro-Caribbean culture to music and the glamour days of the 1950s.
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Should other Caribbean islands be concerned about the potential impact on their visitor arrival numbers? Or does Cuba entrance just mean “the pie will get bigger?”
Other Caribbean islands, as well as Mexico, should be concerned, and I think they are keeping an eye on what’s happening. For now, given the ongoing U.S. government restrictions, Cuban infrastructure limitations and expensive prices, Cuba is appealing to a few rather specific segments of travelers, so it’s not a huge drain on other destinations.
I recently wrote a piece for my site, LatinFlyer.com, about whether you should ditch your Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic vacation and go to Cuba instead. The answer, for now, is no, because Cuba offers a completely different experience, and for most U.S. travelers it’s not a beach destination where we can just go and lie on the sand. But as the Cuba travel situation evolves, relaxes and becomes more mass-market, I think other Caribbean and Mexican destinations will indeed see a decline in visitation, at least for a while. Other vacation spots will need to step up their game and come up with new strategies for attracting visitors, as Cuba opens up and develops more.
Photo credit: Nick Kenrick. via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA