The Resurgence of the Cuban Hospitality Industry

By David Kong

Thursday March 31, 2016

Last December, we experienced a historic event – after 54 years, the American flag flew again in Cuba as the U.S. Embassy reopened in Havana. And, with the U.S. Treasury Department recently easing travel restrictions, many Americans will once again be able to experience Cuba’s rich history and culture.

Cuba has long been wrapped in mystery and allure for the American traveler. Many travelers want to experience a country that has essentially been frozen in time – from the vintage 1950’s cars that still travel the roadways to the colonial architecture found throughout much of Cuba.

As the relationship between the United States and Cuba slowly improves, a seemingly non-existent hospitality industry will begin to take shape. This presents a tremendous opportunity for both the American traveler and the Cuban economy.

According to Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott Hotels who accompanied President Obama on his historic visit to Cuba, the main issues facing the industry in Cuba involve ownership, compensation, and access to the Internet. Given the fact that the Cuban government will retain ownership of properties, it may limit the number of companies wanting to invest in the Cuban market. There are also significant hiring restrictions in place. A company is required to rely on the government when determining who they can hire, and then they have to pay the employees’ salary to the government. The final issue surrounds access to the Internet. While Google recently announced plans to set up additional Wi-Fi and broadband access, it may be quite some time before the proper infrastructure is in place.

Aside from the challenges Arne mentioned, the Cuban hospitality industry will also need assistance in cultivating a hospitality industry workforce. To meet the basic expectations of international travelers, the workforce will need to be educated and trained in a variety of areas including service, cleanliness and technology (e.g., revenue management and electronic distribution). With the talent, work ethic and hospitality spirit, I have no doubt the Cuban people will rise to the challenge.

Cuba has something that no one else has – unique history and culture, natural beauty and Cuban cigars. Although tourism to Cuba has been restricted, the desire to experience its richness has never faded. Just as we have witnessed history in the making as ties to Cuba are restored, we are also on the verge of witnessing a resurgence of their tourism and hospitality industry.