Interview with Joel Hernández, Tourism Counselor of the Cuban Embassy in the United Kingdom.
Counselor, by way of preamble, what is the current situation of the British market, in particular for Cuba?
The United Kingdom has gone through a delicate situation in the confrontation with COVID-19; the country has seen 4,600 of its citizens lose their lives and has suffered the contraction of various sectors of its economy.
Inserted in this context there is the travel and tourism industry, which has seen how in the first quarter of 2020 visits abroad by British residents decreased by 24%, foreseeing that at the end of this year this figure will have risen to 70%, compared to 2019.
In the case of Cuba, the pandemic came at a time when the demand to visit the island exceeded the air capacity in the United Kingdom, largely due to the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook, a company that moved 80% of British tourism to destinations such as Holguín, the keys and Varadero.
Therefore, the current moment continues to be one of restructuring and reordering a market that has exceeded an emission of 210,000 tourists per year and that has the potential to greatly improve that number.
What is the connotation of the fact that the United Kingdom has removed restrictions on travel to Cuba?
It was a fair recognition by the British authorities of the Cuban health system and the control of the pandemic on the island, which led the British press to echo our progress and show the public that we were still a safe and viable tourist destination.
From that moment on, we noticed an increase in demand for the destination. British citizens were looking for destinations without restrictions and without risk to their life, while Cuba, with its traditional prestige in safety, tranquility and human quality, added a strict and efficient control of the disease, with first-rate measures in its tourist destinations and hotel facilities, and an attractive product despite the current moment.
I can assure you that having eliminated it from the list of countries with travel restrictions definitely influenced the good reception that TUI’s air operation to Varadero has had and the growing demand that prevails in the market today.
What is the strategy followed by Cuba to reverse the effects of the pandemic in that market with a view to the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 seasons?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been looking for solutions to its impact, trying to foresee and anticipate in time, avoiding not to wait for “everything to pass” to act. A reflection of this are the joint negotiations that allowed TUI’s air operation to Varadero to restart on October 20, with the increase of a weekly frequency to that planned.
We have intensified direct contact to support British tour operators interested in restarting or boosting their sales to Cuba, discussing possible joint promotion contracts, analyzing plans and needs, which we also do with travel agencies; in both cases, updating them on the modifications and advances of our tourism product, demonstrating the country’s potential for the immediate future (2021/2022).
We are also working to enhance our presence in social networks and the media, providing information to journalists who later publish our reports, as was the case of a recent article in the renowned newspaper The Telegraph, in addition to being immersed in a process of studying new promotional variants.
We will also attend the specialized fairs and tourism events that will take place in 2021/2022, in which we have participated for more than 21 years, and that were canceled in 2020.
At the same time, our country has adapted the tourist destination to the new conditions and increased safety and hygiene measures, without affecting the tourist product and the traditional attractions that distinguish us. Cuba has not stopped the development of its hotel plant and will continue to grow, perfecting the quality of its service for the 2021/2022 season.
Have some tourist operations been reestablished with tour operators and airlines to resume the issuance of tourists to the island?
It is something that will grow as the situation in the United Kingdom improves and our destination announces its total opening, but for the moment we can already announce that TUI began two operations for autumn-winter 2020-21 with weekly Manchester-Varadero flights, as of October 25, 2020, and London Gatwick-Varadero every Thursday, as of November 5, 2020.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic is planning its reintegration with the possibility of “taking off” as of January 3, 2021 or weeks before.
What do you think about the announcement of the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines Company regarding the establishment in Havana, for 2021/22 aboard the Braemar, its embarkation and disembarkation base, after thanking Cuba for allowing the docking of the ship affected by a COVID outbreak, and assisting in the repatriation of its passengers to the UK?
It was an altruistic gesture by the Cuban government towards those passengers, at a time of great uncertainty and when other nations in the region did not give the requested support. Cuba not only accepted to offer its assistance, but it did so efficiently, demonstrating its capacity and humanism. The event was positively reported in the British press and had a significant impact on the population.
The announcement of using Havana as the mother port of its operations was also the result of the tourist quality of our destination and the interest of cruise ship customers to stay longer in the capital, as was recognized by Clare Ward, Director of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ Product and Service to Customer, who said: “Using Havana, Cuba, as our new base of exchange allows us to really show the Caribbean in all its splendor. It also means that we can offer extended stays in Havana so that our guests have enough time to enjoy this vibrant city, with nights out or overnight stays when possible…. Havana has always had a high rate of guest satisfaction in our journeys, so it’s great to be able to offer them more opportunities to explore that wonderful port.”
What is your opinion regarding the possible preferences, travel motivations and tourist destinations that are most attractive for that market in the new scenario that will prevail when tourism recovers on a global scale?
The British generally adore destinations where they can explore the culture of the country and learn from interacting with it, something they achieve in Cuba despite the fact that it’s a Caribbean destination, a region they usually visit in search of sun and beach.
Having the peace of mind of being able to do all this in a safe, stable country, with the safety and protection that it offers in dealing with COVID, with a tourism product effectively adapted to the new times, is something that the British value and will surely increase their interest and appreciation for the destination.
Will Cuba participate in the virtual edition of WTM 2020?
Cuba, immersed in various tasks and strategies to recover the destination and, in this case, the performance of the British market, has decided not to participate in the virtual version of the WTM this year and to focus on specific actions already planned for the period.
However, we will be disseminating the changes and improvements that we have made in the sector, including the maintenance of hotels, the completion of new works, improvements to the hygiene and quality system in our tourist centers, and reporting on the result of the actions we carry out in the market with new tour operators and travel agencies.
Any other aspect you want to highlight….
The COVID crisis has been an unprecedented situation; all sectors of the economy and society have been affected worldwide, but imagine the cost and sacrifice that this has meant for an island like Cuba, which not only suffers the blockade of the United States government, but also its intensification in recent months.
That is why I take advantage of this space to acknowledge the efforts of our government and the Ministry of Tourism in the reorganization of the tourism structure and the priority given to the sector as a fundamental source of income for economic recovery during the coming year.
Cuba needs and will need its tourism and we the workers of the sector have worked tirelessly for this; the result will be noticed soon.
Thank you for the opportunity.