Travel execs in Obama delegation get an opening to Cuba’s tourism potential

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The baseball stadium where President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro watched the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national team.
The baseball stadium where President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro watched the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national team. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

HAVANA — As Air Force One lifted off from Jose Marti International airport here last week, it marked the culmination of worldwide attention that this city had not experienced in several generations.

President Obama’s visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years, had brought a confluence of players the likes of which had never before assembled in Havana.

From high-level officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and National Security Advisor Susan Rice to celebrities like former Yankees captain Derek Jeter and the entertainer Jimmy Buffett to business leaders, including the CEOs of Airbnb, Marriott International and Carnival Corp., it was an assemblage that, for a few fleeting days, made this city an epicenter of political, cultural and commercial power.

As much as Obama’s visit was political and symbolic, he also came as a tourist with his family in tow. Accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha and mother-in-law Marian Robinson, his first order of business was a walking tour of Old Havana led by Eusebio Leal, the city historian. 

They also attended part of an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, the first Major League Baseball game played in Cuba since 1999. Cuban beisbol is a popular pastime among visitors to this baseball-crazy nation. 

A vintage car driven through the streets of Old Havana.
A vintage car driven through the streets of Old Havana. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

In a show of support for entrepreneurs, and sating a desire to eat well, the first family dined at San Cristobal Paladar. Family-owned restaurants, paladars are built into homes and are very popular with tourists, who often are warned away from the state-run eateries.

Obama, in several speeches, repeated his support for ending the embargo of Cuba.

“I will keep saying it every chance I get,” he said in remarks here. “One of the best ways to help the Cuban people succeed and improve their lives would be for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo once and for all.”

Clearly, there was a reason that the presidential delegation included not only dozens of members of Congress but also top business leaders. 

This administration, and surely Cuba’s, knows that in the heat of an election year, the stakes are high. The more entrenched U.S. business interests become in Cuba, the less likely a future president would be to find the support necessary to roll back any of the changes Obama has made there. 

Obama attended an event at a Havana brewery that focused on business opportunities for the Cuban people, while also serving as the place where Carnival Corp. signed its long-awaited agreement to begin cruises to the island with its Fathom social-impact brand.

Just two days before the trip, the U.S. Department of the Treasury approved Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts to operate in Cuba. And Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced while in Cuba that Treasury had approved his company’s plans to expand its Cuba listings to non-U.S. travelers. Previously, it was licensed to rent homes here only to travelers from the U.S.

The fact that these long-awaited deals were made in the halo of Obama’s visit was no accident.

“The visit did have a way of catalyzing efforts,” said Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, who had visited Cuba last July and filed paperwork with Treasury shortly afterward for permission to do business here.

Carnival had been waiting since last summer for President Raul Castro’s government to approve its Fathom cruises to Cuba, the first of which is scheduled to sail in May.

President Obama during a Q&A session in Havana.
President Obama during a Q&A session in Havana. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said that while he and his team had hoped the approvals would come much sooner “so people would have the confidence to book,” he was happy it coincided with Obama’s visit.

The administration has long recognized that tourism is perhaps the most effective way to make inroads into the Cuban economy, as well as a potent diplomacy tool. In his remarks, the president singled out the American travel executives in his delegation who were among the first U.S. business people to take steps toward doing business in Cuba. 

“Since we’ve made it easier to travel to Cuba, a lot more Americans are visiting the island, you may have noticed,” Obama said at the brewery. “More Americans coming to Cuba means more customers for your businesses. More Americans using the dollar will mean that they will spend more as well. There will be more channels for you to import supplies and equipment. More Americans will be able to buy your arts, crafts, food, Cuban-origin software, as well as, of course, Cuban rum and cigars.”

A rarefied atmosphere

Obama’s historic visit and the snowballing wheeling and dealing by U.S. business leaders here presented a stark contrast to what a visitor experiences when traveling the country.

Although I saw little of Cuba beyond Havana, what I found striking was not just how much potential exists but just how much investment will be necessary to realize it. 

By all accounts, even the Havana that greeted President Obama last week was not quite the city it had been as recently as a month before. The day before he was set to arrive, workers with brooms set out to clean up as much detritus from the sidewalks as they could.

The Paseo del Prado, the grand boulevard that is home to the Gran Teatro de La Habana, where Obama made his speech to the Cuban people, had been freshly paved and painted in the weeks before his arrival. The baseball stadium where Obama and Castro took in the game had been spiffed up only the week before.

Nor did the last-minute face-lifts for places along Obama’s motorcade route mask the fact that the city is decades behind in terms of investment and infrastructure, not to mention in much-needed maintenance to the stunningly beautiful but predominately crumbling architecture that dominates Old Havana. 

Jimmy Buffett performing in Cuba last week.
Jimmy Buffett performing in Cuba last week.

Just hours after the president’s visit ended, I caught up with Sorenson, who was just coming back to the Saratoga Hotel after a run through the city.

“Havana is a great place to run,” he told me, adding that he’d jogged along the Malecon, the city’s famous five-mile waterfront esplanade.

I pondered this, thinking about the huge craters in the sidewalks and the general state of disrepair of the streets. One of the best pieces of advice I’d gotten prior to my trip was to not wear open-toed shoes in Old Havana.

Yet it is enthusiasm like Sorenson’s, of course, that will trigger the injection of capital necessary to create a real tourism industry here and provide a financial boost to the Cuban people.

One of the questions everyone in Havana seemed to be asking last week was whether the arrival of American companies and customs would ruin Cuba by threatening the very charms that tourists yearn to experience.

Nobody wants to see Cuba turn into Cancun, and business leaders who want to create a presence here are savvy enough to know that most Americans who wish to visit Cuba don’t want the kind of typical beach vacation that dozens of other Caribbean islands offer.

“I think most Americans who want to come really want to experience Cuba,” Sorenson said.

These travel industry leaders also clearly understood that they need to build attractions with lasting appeal, even if for now they are capitalizing on the many “firsts”: Fathom’s first cruise in May, the expected first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba later this year and, according to Sorenson, a first Marriott-brand hotel, likely in 2017.

“It’s a time in history now we’ll never get again,” said Fathom President Tara Russell, “Now is the time for people to book. There will never be a ‘first ever’ ever again.”

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