To Beat the Rush, Americans Rush to Cuba, Overloading Services
By FRANCES ROBLESMARCH 24, 2016
HAVANA — In Viñales, a lush valley about 100 miles from Havana, cabdrivers are charging stranded foreigners $10 to sleep in the back of their taxis.
In Varadero, a popular beach town, tour groups are being rerouted to resorts two hours away, which Americans are not really supposed to be visiting. And upon arrival in Havana, tourists sometimes face five-hour delays, because the airport lacks the mobile staircases needed to disembark and the conveyor belts to process luggage.
“It’s funny, it’s like Americans are rushing to Cuba before Americans rush to Cuba,” said Tony Pandola, a tour guide here.
The sharp increase in American travel to Cuba is putting a strain on private and state businesses on the island, leading to some shortages and an abrupt rise in prices that will only steepen as more Americans take advantage of relaxed travel regulations, industry experts said.
State hotels have already increased prices by nearly one-third, as demand for lodging far exceeds Cuba’s ability to meet it.
Last week, the Obama administration announced new rules that will allow Americans to travel on their own to Cuba without the constraints of a prearranged group itinerary.
Travel agents and industry specialists say the move is guaranteed to unleash a new flood of visitors to Cuba, where hotels and popular restaurants are already at full capacity and struggling to find a steady supply of food, water and gas to keep their doors open.
The lack of tourism infrastructure is just one of the many challenges Cuba faces as it strengthens economic and diplomatic ties with the United States. Cuba, which has suffered from a failing economy for decades, lacks the number of rooms that would allow it to catch up quickly to the rush of visitors.
Even with at least three major hotel construction projects underway, and a Starwood deal in the works, experts say it will take years before Havana can absorb the number of travelers arriving each year.
Tourism to Cuba reached a record last year, when 3.5 million people visited, according to state news media. In 2016, one million people have visited so far, up nearly 15 percent from the same period last year. The number of Americans who traveled to Cuba increased 77 percent in 2015 from the prior year, according to the Havana Consulting Group, which monitors business trends in Cuba.
“It’s pretty close to impossible to find rooms right now; the demand for Cuba is just unbelievable,” said Peter Sanchez, president of Cuba Tours and Travel in Miami. “It’s not just Americans. It’s also the rest of the world that wants to see Cuba — the cliché — ‘before it changes.’”
He said hotels in smaller cities are full through next year, and others are charging up to $375 a night. For the second week in May, a room at the Habana Libre — a former Hilton so in need of repair that Mr. Sanchez refuses to book his customers there — is $300 a night.
The state tourism company, Gaviota, said it plans to add 50,000 hotel rooms by 2020, with Havana as the top priority. The goal, a state-run media report said, is to “position Havana as one of the top destinations for urban tourism in the Caribbean” by opening three new hotels by 2018.
Airbnb, the home-share service, announced last week that in its first year in operation, more than 13,000 American travelers had booked stays in Cuba. Nearly 4,000 homeowners have listed their homes there, the company said.
The strain on the hospitality industry is particularly acute in Havana, because the Cuban government for years focused on building hotels at beach resorts popular with Europeans, but which are off-limits to Americans, who even under the new rules are prohibited from engaging in vacation-style excursions.
Cuba has about 70,000 hotel rooms, but only 20 percent of those are in Havana. In places like Viñales and Trinidad, there are so few hotels that private entrepreneurs who rent rooms have stepped in to fill the void.
“There’s been an explosion of new business,” said Annalisa Gallina, who manages Café Bohemia, a cafe in Old Havana that also offers two one-bedroom apartments and a room for rent.
Ms. Gallina said providing consistent, quality products is a challenge in a country where shortages are common.
“There are days that no water comes out of the pipes,” she said. “Sometimes the gas is so slow, that when you’re cooking with gas it causes serious delays.”
Emilio Morales, the president of the Havana Consulting Group, said that the bed-and-breakfasts and private restaurants, known as paladares, are meeting tourist demand by wiping out the stores Cubans rely on to fill their pantries.
In a recent survey, 12 of 25 stores Mr. Morales checked did not have chicken, and more than half of the stores had no soft drinks or bottled water.
“These changes are going to trigger an avalanche, and Cuba is not ready for it,” Mr. Morales said. “This is a big opportunity for Cuba. If they don’t take this train, they are going to miss it.”
Restaurants already require advance booking and with more cruise ships flooding the region with travelers, experts say it will become even more difficult to find a place to dine. Among the reasons experts say Cuba has agreed to accept cruise ships: the passengers do not require hotels.
Experts say it is unlikely that Cuba will be able to process the 110 new daily flights that American carriers hope to schedule at airports around the country by later this year. The terminal that handles American flights at José Martí International Airport has just two luggage belts.
A spokeswoman for American Airlines said the carrier’s operations team is working with the Cuban authorities to ensure the airport is ready for scheduled service. “We feel we’re well-positioned given that we have operated charter flights to Cuba for the past 25 years,” said the spokeswoman, Martha Pantin.
Collin Laverty, an American who organizes tour groups in Cuba, said travelers should avoid checking luggage.
“That airport is definitely not ready for the challenge,” Mr. Laverty said. “You can have a 45-minute flight, and then six hours to get out of the airport. After a three-hour check-in in Miami, that can be a long day.”
Hannah Berkeley Cohen contributed reporting