Airlines Ready For Cuba, But Is Cuba Ready?
Photo by David Cogswell
A year after restoring diplomatic relations, the U.S. and Cuba are on the verge of an agreement to resume regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two nations.
U.S airlines say they are ready.
But is Cuba?
More than 100,000 U.S. visitors have been to Cuba in the year since the Obama administration announced it was restoring diplomatic ties with the island nation – all of them still on charters. Commercial airline service might be imminent but the amount of U.S. tourists it will bring to Cuba could overwhelm an infrastructure that might not be ready for an increase in numbers.
From an airline standpoint, American, United, Southwest and JetBlue have all said they are not only interested in starting service to Cuba, but ready to go. Fortunately, this is the one place where Cuba is the strongest.
Because Cuba has been off the radar – almost literally – of people in the United States for two generations, the general tourist thinks of Havana and Jose Marti International Airport as the only place to fly into. But Cuba actually has 10 airports scattered throughout the country servicing flights from 32 airlines including such major carriers as Air France, Air Canada, Aeromexico, and Virgin Atlantic.
The facilities are older, but certainly not decrepit, having served some of the world’s biggest carriers for decades.
Hotels could be an issue in the near-term, although it is likely American companies will become more involved once the trade embargo with Cuba is lifted. For the moment, however, it is less about quality than quantity. According to Cuban officials, there are 63,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, almost 70 percent of which are four- and five-star properties. By some estimates, capacity will increase to 85,000 rooms by 2020.
Will it be enough for an expected increase to 9 million tourists by then from the current 3 million or so tourists annually? That remains to be seen. By comparison’s sake, Las Vegas has 124,000 hotels rooms and draws 41 million tourists a year. Yet travel experts say there are big differences between Havana and Las Vegas.
“It’s a big problem,” Omar Everleny, an economist at the Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy, told the Toronto Globe and Mail. “Havana is 100 percent full.”
Cruise ships already regularly visit Cuba … but there are issues. According to Yahoo Travel, Havana’s docks cannot handle the 3,000- and 4,000-passenger superships. Investments will need to be made there.
There’s also the question of currency. It has been less than a month since the first U.S. debit card was approved for use when MasterCard and Fort Lauderdale-based Stonegate Bank announced an agreement. MasterCard can be used now at more than 10,000 locations in Cuba; Stonegate guarantees the payment.
But few other U.S.-based companies are willing to make the same commitment until the Obama administration lifts the economic trade embargo with Cuba.
More by Rich Thomaselli
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