The tourist influx to Cuba is about to begin

by Anne VanderMey, Fortune Magazine*

America is ready for Cuba. Are Cuban hotels ready for Americans?

Imaging booking a $4,000 weeklong vacation to an -exotic locale near the ocean. Now imagine that when you get there, your room has no hand towels, the air conditioning is spotty, and it’s illegal to kick back by the beach.
Welcome to Cuba, home to miles of white-sand beaches, premium tobacco, oak-aged rum—and 50 years of a business-phobic government under a crippling trade embargo. Thanks to new regulations the U.S. announced in January, which among other things will eliminate the need for a special travel license to go there, the island nation has become the world’s buzziest destination for Americans. It’s also probably the only one that won’t accept most credit cards.Cuba has long been the forbidden fruit of the American tourist. A 30-minute flight from Florida, it already draws enough people from Canada and Europe to make it the Caribbean’s third-most-popular destination, after Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Cuba gets about 3 million visitors a year—just 90,000 of them from the U.S.
New rules have made travel to the country easier than it has been in half a century, and President Obama has said he wants more barriers to fall. In the Senate, Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona introduced a bill to end the embargo outright. If that happens, the IMF has said, the number of annual visitors to Cuba could easily double. Yet with a shortage of high-end accommodations, what Cuba will do with all of them is unclear.
Tour operators are already seeing a surge. Michael Zuccato of California-based Cuba Travel Services, which operates flights to Cuba and organizes tours for Americans, says he expects his business to increase 50% to 200% over the next several years. Michael Sykes, founder of Cuba Cultural Travel, has moved to secure some 10,000 rooms in anticipation of strong demand. Pam Hoffee, a VP at Swiss travel company Globus, predicts its Cuba travel business will triple. The main obstacle to all that expansion? Hotel space. Jennine Cohen, managing director for the Americas at high-end travel firm GeoEx, says it’s rooms rather than demand that’s limiting growth, a challenge that she expects will worsen in coming years as Cuba’s weighty regulations hold up private development.

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