Hoteliers Set Their Sites on The Caribbean's Most Fascinating Country
Luxury hotel companies are banking on Cuba’s countless charms despite logistical challenges.
On our third evening in Havana the temperature drops. Then the rain begins, first a light drizzle that makes the cobblestone streets shine, and then a steady downpour that flails against the leaves of banyan trees. My companion and I have forgotten an umbrella so we hail a taxi, a vintage blue-and-white Cadillac that drops us off at a nearby paladar (family-run restaurant).
One of the most overt signs of the effect of Raúl Castro’s economic reform program, which started to gather steam in late 2010, has been the wave of new paladar and casa particular (private homestays). In Havana, the new restaurants, which range from quaint mom-and-pop operations to stylish eateries in colonial houses, are proving Cuba has more up its culinary sleeves than just rice and beans.
By the time we sit down to order, the storm has picked up, and water pounds the shutters and sprays onto the Spanish tile floors. Then suddenly the room goes black, as do the streetlamps and the houses on our block. The entire capital, we learn, is without power. Outside, the streets are quickly becoming rivers and I realize, soberly, that our casa particular is about 30 minutes away, yet neither of us knows in which direction.
Though we are in a mild state of panic, it occurs to me that moments like this once defined travel. Before the advent of mobile phones and Google Maps, a wrong turn down a Roman alley or an unexpected highway blizzard could land you in strange and unexpected situations that demanded improvization, surrender and occasionally a moment of grace.
It is likely just a matter of time before Cuba modernizes its infrastructure and telecommunications systems, making life seamless and predictable even for tourists caught in a rainstorm. The country’s path forward may be uncertain, but one thing is clear: The government is betting that tourism will help solve some of its economic woes.
In 2016, the government declared a goal of welcoming 10 million visitors by 2030. And to reach this number, the country is improving infrastructure and expanding hospitality options. “Cuba wants to elevate its tourism offerings,” says Mr. Peter Hechler, General Manager of Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Mexico, who also oversees the group’s properties in Cuba. “The island has amazing beaches and an amazing history, and the tourism board now wants to offer more variety and not focus purely on all-inclusive European-managed hotels.”
Clustered in resort towns such as Veradero, all-inclusive retreats have long been popular among sun-seeking Canadian and European tourists who arrive on chartered flights and rarely leave their compounds. The new crop of hotels aims a little higher — or a lot higher, in the case of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, which opened in Havana in late 2017 as the city’s first five-star hotel.
Dating back to 1890 and once home to high-end clothing boutiques, theaters and restaurants, the hotel’s regal building was taken over by the government for offices and schools following the revolution. More recently — like many other buildings in Cuba — it fell into disrepair.
Following an extensive restoration, the building blazes white against the sky and contains 246 rooms and suites that feature high ceilings and elegant French windows. From the rooftop terrace, which has an infinity swimming pool, views stretch from El Floridita — one of Hemingway’s local watering holes — to the nearby El Capitolio parliament buildings.
“We are very good at old buildings,” says Mr. Xavier Destribats, Chief Operating Officer of Kempinski Americas. “We run palaces all around the world, and The Kempinski La Habana was a very good opportunity to re-enter the Americas.”
Designed by husband-and-wife team Arno and Vanessa Joubert, the hotel interiors take inspiration from the early 20th century and incorporate Spanish colonial cement tiles, crystal chandeliers and intricate metal screens. Beveled mirrors and touches of gold and silver add a hint of Cuban opulence, typical of the era but a far cry from anything in Havana today — although hotel guests who wander through the Bulgari and Montblanc shops that recently opened on the ground floor (and sell products worth more than a lifetime’s state salary) may come away believing otherwise.
Mr. Destribats says wealthy travelers are drawn to Cuba’s authenticity: “It’s the old vintage cars, all of the beauty of Old Havana, the fantastic salsa, rum, lobster, and the beauty and heart of the Cuban people.”
American tourists currently make up the majority of guests at The Kempinski La Habana, followed by European and Asian travelers, but Mr. Destribats admits the number of American arrivals has dropped since President Trump took office. After President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, the island welcomed a record number of foreign travelers, 4.5 million in 2017 (a 16.2 percent increase in visitors from the previous year), with 619,000 of them coming from the U.S.
American companies such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts (now a subsidiary of Marriott International) signed deals for new hotels. But the investment activity came to a halt when President Trump partially reversed the new measures in 2017.
Now, while American hotel brands wait on the sidelines, European and Asian hoteliers are strengthening their foothold in a market that Mr. Destribats believes isn’t going anywhere but up. He is currently in negotiations to open two additional properties: Another hotel in Havana and a seaside resort on one of the cayos, the small islets off Cuba’s northern coast.
Cayo Santa Maria, one of the more developed islands, is the site of both the Angsana and Dhawa resorts recently opened by the Banyan Tree Group. Angsana Cayo Santa Maria, which opened in late 2018, is accessible via a 30-mile causeway from the Cuban mainland. The adults-only beach resort has 252 rooms, several restaurants and bars (including its beachfront grill and jazz lounge), and a spa that features Asian-inspired treatments. Dhawa Cago Santa Maria has 516 rooms and offers a range of activities for families, such as beach volleyball, kayaking and tours to nearby diving sites, rainforests and waterfalls.
Plans are in the works for a Banyan Tree Hotel in Havana, but for the moment the group is testing the market with second- and third-tier brands, says Mr. Peter Hechler. “We wanted to show that we can deliver the service and amenities we are known for, and we did that,” he says.
Frequent electricity and internet outages are some of the challenges hotels face when trying to maintain standards. (The Banyan Tree’s resorts were the first on the coast to offer internet inside the hotel rooms.) But the primary challenge, Mr. Hechler says, is lagging infrastructure. Cuba imports 70 to 80 percent of its food, according to the World Food Programme, and shortages are still commonplace.
But the country’s slower pace also has its perks, particularly if you’re on holiday. “New York is so fast it’s dizzying,” Mr. Hechler says. “Here you can really relax. You don’t need to post 10 pictures online every hour. You can really connect with yourself and unwind.”
His No. 1 advice for travelers heading to Cuba? Go with an open mind and you will be pleasantly surprised. “In the rest of the Caribbean you can get everything you want, from low budget to ultra luxury. But in Cuba you get the ultra unexpected,” he says.
On the night of the storm, the paladar wait staff brings a lantern to the table and lets us stay awhile to wait for a lull. Eventually we brave the elements, and by some miracle we find a taxi idling outside. The driver welcomes us and cautiously proceeds, his headlamps blazing like two giant flashlights shining on darkened buildings and lake-sized puddles, which he weaves around slowly until we reach our homestay.
In the morning, under a clear blue sky, with power and internet restored, we learn that a tornado — the first to strike the country in more than 80 years — swept in from the Gulf of Mexico the night before and devastated some districts with 200-mph winds. Unexpected, indeed. But as we watch the citizens of Havana come together to clean up after the storm, it seems clear that the event is a momentary setback for a resilient city and a country that is slowly but surely moving into its next phase.
This story appeared in the April 2019 print edition of Portfolio magazine