Interview with Xonia Beltrán Vivero, delegate of the Minister of Tourism in Havana
Delegate, what has been the impact on the capital of all Cubans being the venue of the FITCuba 2019 International Tourism Fair, and how was the city prepared to host the important event?
Havana, Cuba’s main cultural destination, rejoices with the decision of having been chosen as the venue for the 39th edition of FITCuba, the most important event of the Cuban tourist industry: on this occasion, dedicated to Havana and its 500th anniversary, to the Spanish market and to events and incentives.
Precisely in the year we are celebrating five centenaries of the founding of the Township of San Cristóbal de La Habana, we are hosting FITCuba as a preamble to the grand event. There are many expectations among tourism professionals, tour operators, travel agents, airlines, the press and major partners in the tourism industry about what is happening in the majestic Morro-Cabaña Complex fortress.
It is a special moment for the participants. In addition, these days we are also enjoying the Havana Biennial, which turns the city into the “capital of plastic arts,” in the context of the inauguration of the “cultural corridor” on the well-known and busy Línea Street, right in the center of El Vedado.
On this occasion, the travel agencies and tour operators are presenting new catalogs of tourist offers, new products are being launched, and a program of activities is being developed that allows for finding out how the city is being transformed.
A central theme in this interview is, undoubtedly, the action plan undertaken by the tourism sector to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Havana, how is this program marching, in particular hotel and complementary investments that contribute to new openings, expansion of capabilities and product development?
The tourism sector has proposed a comprehensive program that is aimed at the recovery and implementation of 1,121 rooms out of working order, which will increase the availability of accommodations, all with greater comfort and modernized; and the repair of 68 houses in the capital’s Playas del Este.
New hotels are being incorporated: Línea y N, Cueto, Marqués de Cárdenas de Monte Hermoso, Gran Hotel, Prado y Malecón, Vedado Azul, Universitario Hotel, Portales de Paseo and accommodation facilities in the Campo de Capdevila.
In addition, this year the construction of other new hotels will begin: Palacio de los Corredores, Catedral, Metrópolis and New York, whose investment will continue during the next 2020.
A gift for the Habaneros is the opening of two camping sites: Villa Marbella and Villa La Kuka, one of them in Playas del Este and the other west of the capital.
The program also conceives improvements and reconversion of non-hotel products: the reopening of the emblematic La Torre Restaurant; the renovation of La Giraldilla tourist complex in order to turn it into a product for family enjoyment; La Ferminia Restaurant, specializing in meats; the incorporation of the new City Spa Club service to the Don Cangrejo tourist complex, which raises the standards of the restaurant specializing in gourmet food.
Comprehensive reforms are planned, as well as an increase in service areas and new recreational products at the Mi Hacienda-Guanabito center; the total repair of the Japanese garden and exterior areas of the 1830 Complex; and the general remodeling and expansion of the Capdevila Golf Course.
Likewise, three new recreational and leisure establishments will be inaugurated: a Bar dedicated to The Beatles, the Habana Disco and the Cena-Concert Complex of the Cubanacan Comodoro Hotel.
Meanwhile, the Palace of Crafts, a commercial recreational center of high patrimonial value and privileged location, which is a great attraction for tourists, is being restored; and the Shopping Mall outside the Meliá Cohiba Hotel is being repaired.
As for the Marlin, a comprehensive program of restoration of the category-A Hemingway International Marina is being developed to increase the berths and reanimate its services, along with improvements that are incorporated to the Tarará Marina on the occasion of the 69th Ernest Hemingway International Marlin Fishing Tournament that will be held in June this year.
But, undoubtedly, the emblematic work will be the reconversion of the José Antonio Echeverría Social Workers Club into the Havana 500 recreational club.
Starting with the call made by the city government, each entity of the tourism sector has an action plan that includes renovations, ranging from those of the image and its environment to products and services, to give Havana on its 500th anniversary everything it deserves to establish itself as a tourist destination that differentiates and distinguishes itself for its quality, For Havana, the biggest and enhancing its status as Wonder City of the World and Iberian-American Capital of Cocktail Making.
How is the Havana 500 program reflected in the city environment, in terms of road networks, tourist services, recovery of buildings and benefits to the neighborhoods, which also contribute to the image of the destination?
Havana is in movement, it is not a city stopped in time: Havana residents and all those who live and work in this city are in a turmoil and very enthusiastic. The president of the government of Havana has inculcated that the 500 is a pretext to develop a feeling of love for Havana, a feeling of doing for Havana, as children do for their mother…to love her, take care of her and defend her.
Behind each work there is a collective effort of men and women who want to contribute from the smallest to the biggest detail. It has as a principle to think out well everything we are going to do, doing it aesthetically, doing everything planned with good taste and taking care of what we have.
This 500th anniversary will be celebrated in each municipality of the capital, that’s why there are many works that are rescuing their culture and identity. Projects for the lighting of main streets, parks, fountains and buildings are being carried out simultaneously in emblematic sites, avenues and junctions of the city; sanitation with new equipment and environmental education messages through a communication campaign; as well as production of television spots made by Cinesoft and the Havana TV Channel’s program Serie por La Habana, to report on what is being done in the metropolis.
The National Institute of Hydraulic Resources is working on the repair of the Palatino pipeline, which will benefit the residents of Old Havana; while ETECSA is installing a significant number of radio-bases to improve the signal and connectivity in all the capital’s municipalities, while it puts up a new and modern Multicenter, in the San Rafael Boulevard.
Brands and products that will be marketed during the commemorative day are being designed for the 500th anniversary. The website habana500.gob.cu was created, through which users can get updates on the projects and also participate in competitions and publications related to the history of Havana.
These and many other actions are being carried out, and there is much joy over the transformations that already can be seen in this wonderful city, which contributes to the image of the destination and the satisfaction of all those who visit us.
Beyond Havana’s anniversary, there is talk of an ambitious development program to expand the hotel plant and in particular to boost the high-standard tourism segment. How is the current plant structured and how is its growth projected?
At present, Havana has a hotel plant of 70 hotels with 12,488 rooms, of which 20% are five stars and 31%, four stars; and the rest has a lower category.
The increase in the hotels’ standards and comfort is one of the priorities of tourism in the capital, hence we have a development plan to grow in accommodation capacities with standards that match the competition in the Caribbean, which constitutes a very big challenge.
The incorporation of 657 four- and five-star rooms is foreseen in the year of the 500th anniversary; of these, some 82 correspond to facilities that we have classified as “Encanto” Hotels [they operate under the Hoteles E brand], for their heritage and architectural values and a first-class personalized service.
What is the participation of foreign investment in its different modalities?
Foreign investment is another of the priorities we have in the capital’s tourism sector. Of the four joint ventures set up in Cuba for real estate developments associated to tourism, one is based in Havana: the Bellomonte S.A. Joint Venture, whose investment process is at an advanced stage. Several prestigious hotel chains operate under the modality of management and marketing contracts, such as Meliá, Iberostar, NH, Be Live, Marriott, Kempinski, among others, that provide the know-how to raise the standards and quality of tourism services offered.
With regard to the arrival of visitors to the destination, what is its performance and what are the estimates in this regard for the close of the year?
Havana is one of the destinations in Cuba that has the highest air connectivity with cities in other countries. The arrival of visitors is registering increases of 4.6% in relation to the previous year, which represents 51% of the total of those who arrived in the country in the first quarter of 2019. We are committed to reaching a new record in the year of the 500th anniversary and surpassing the 2.6 million visitors entering through José Martí International Airport, of the 5.1 million the Cuba destination expects to receive.
Which are the main markets and what strategy has been outlined to encourage other emerging markets?
The main markets to Havana are: United States, Cubans living abroad, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Mexico and Spain. We are working with specific commercial strategies in traditional markets and in others such as Canada, Russia, Portugal, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, differentially.
What actions are being carried out to raise tourists’ level of satisfaction?
We have many attributes that distinguish us from the competition, especially our history, culture and elements of identity that are often very seductive. We have a highly qualified staff and prepared to offer visitors a service of the highest quality. Important investments are being made, together with the Ministry of Communications, to expand the Internet service in hotel facilities and non-hotel services, with wide coverage, to thus respond to a demand from our customers.
How is the non-state sector inserted in the development of tourism in the capital?
The development of the non-state sector has had a positive impact on the tourist activity in Havana; the emergence of restaurants, popularly known as “paladares,” and bars made it possible to diversify the gastronomic offer that already features varied specialties and expresses the genuineness of our identity. Likewise, old cars, carriages, craftspeople and landlords and landladies are attractive to foreigners who want to have direct contact with today’s Habaneros, in a wonderful contrast to a Havana that shows it is moving forward in time.