On the heels of last week’s inaugural SAHIC Cuba conference in Havana, Expedia officially launched its Cuba product on Monday. The online travel agency's customers can now book Cuba hotels on Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Travelocity, Orbitz and CheapTickets. At press time, 482 hotels across 12 locations in Cuba were listed on Expedia.com, but area manager for the Caribbean Veronica Vega told HOTEL MANAGEMENT that the number of Cuba hotels available on the sites is currently “a moving target” as contract signings continue to take place with global hotel partners that already have a presence in the country.
Whatever that number is, Vega is optimistic that it’s only poised for continuous growth because record increases in international visitors are also driving plans for hotel development; 4 million visitors descended on the island nation in 2016 with the greatest swells in visitor numbers coming from the U.S.
Hotel Development in Cuba
“Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and when you pair that with the expansion plans that they have for hotel development and renovations, there’s so much potential,” Vega said. “The number of rooms that they have on a very aggressive growth plan is very compelling and coupled with the fact that Expedia is already a very strong partner throughout the region, I think our presence will also help grow the demand.”
According to the study "Tourism in Cuba: Riding the Wave Toward Sustainable Prosperity," published last year by the Latin America Initiative at Brookings in conjunction with the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Cuba totaled 53,986 existing and projected rooms in three-star categories and above in 2016. The number is expected to rise to 158,000 by 2030. That doesn’t include the country’s rapidly expanding private bed-and-breakfasts known as casa particulares: About 16,000 of the approximate 22,000 currently in operation are open to international tourists.
Vega noted that Expedia’s hotel offerings in Cuba reflect that diversity of product because the company caters to its customer base of varied tastes and interests. “We want to make sure we have a robust selection of everything that’s available in Cuba, including casa particulares, which are a significant part of the Cuban landscape and a very unique experience,” she told HM. “We’re still going after more of those, too.”
Growth Plans in Place
The roster of available destinations is also set to expand as additional relevant product comes to market, with the ultimate objective of offering accommodations everywhere in the country. “From a priority standpoint, it makes sense to offer the largest destinations first as we continue to secure options throughout the entire island,” Vega said.
At the moment, hotels are the only travel product to Cuba available on Expedia sites, but plans are in the works to include flights, car rentals and activities. While the Cuba product is available to Expedia customers globally, American travelers are permitted to visit Cuba provided their travel falls into one of 12 authorized categories, of which general leisure travel is not one, causing Vega to describe these additional lines of business as “more complicated.” Expedia is still developing the technology that will allow the sites to collect the necessary information from American travelers and deliver it to the U.S. federal government in order to be compliant with those directives. Vega said that although a timeline isn’t in place, that work is a priority.
“Currently, the overwhelming travel that occurs to this country is really through packages and is very tour-centric and so we have this unique opportunity to further grow people-to-people contact by allowing independent travelers to select and create their own experience," Vega said. "We’re excited to be able to provide an easy automated solution that allows travelers to book on their own terms.”
More Opportunity for American Travel
Among the 12 general license categories under which U.S. travelers are authorized to visit Cuba is educational activities, and Vega believes more American travelers will make their way to Cuba under this licensing provision. “As someone who’s worked in the Caribbean for such a long time, it’s completely amazing to me to find an entire country that’s focused on the presentation of its history, its cultural practices and its heritage,” she said. “So when we talk about niche travel to Cuba, I think educational travel will continue to develop because Cuba has such a unique positioning.”
Vega acknowledged that the mainstays of Cuba tourism, such as its vintage cars and its distinct musical genres, will continue to attract American visitors to the country. Opportunities such as visiting the country’s tobacco fields and speaking to farmers to learn how tobacco leaves are selected for Cuban cigars will also attract American travelers and their interminable quest for experiential travel. “Cuba is accessible to visitors in that they can have a connection with the Cuban people who are creating these world renowned [experiences] and I wouldn’t be surprised if these types of experiences grow into a tourism industry,” she said.