HAVANA, Cuba. – The Cuban government has put its last hopes for reviving its tourism industry on the massive arrival of Russian and Canadian tourists starting this coming October and November, in sync with the intense campaigns Cuba has conducted in recent days in Russia and in Canada.
In Russia, the “Unique Cuba” campaign was presented by the minister of Tourism himself at the Cuba stand, between September 13th and 15th at the “RECATION” Tourism Expo in Moscow.
However, the marketing strategy has not been limited to the presence of tourism’s principal officers from the island, who have toured Russia promoting travel to Cuba, but it goes as far back as 2016-2017, when a true Cuban Ministry of Tourism “center of operations” was set up that operates as a “Russian clone” of the official Cuban ministry.
One curious detail: Juan Escalona, the son of the famous prosecutor that sentenced general Arnaldo Ochoa and other Cuban military figures to the firing squad on charges of treason (Cause 1, 1989) was named to head this “parallel ministry”.
That was a speedy trial –amidst the U.S. denouncing the sure link between the Cuban government and the drug cartels in Colombia and Panama- where many things came to light on top of the dark labyrinth of the regime’s true economy, like the close relationship between tourism development in the island, the construction of hotels, and the money obtained from drug trafficking operations conducted from the MC Department at the Ministry of the Interior and the high command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
The years have passed and, perhaps, due to an irony of life, or because today’s tourism has overcome its original sin –being financed by drug money- today’s descendants of the intransigent prosecutor have traded trial courts for the leisure industry, and we can find them far away in Russia, as is the case of Juan Escalona, Jr., or somewhere closer as renters of private houses in Havana, or as legal advisors since 2019 to Blue Diamond and Gaviota S.A. properties in Cayo Largo, or as tour operators for Meliá International, as is the case of Ana Laura Escalona, of “Mañi” Escalona and of Amaury Escalona Agüero, the son of Nisia Agüero, former official of the Ministry of Culture and for many years director of Cuban’s National Theatre.
But the one who is best positioned in the Escalona family is, undoubtedly, “Juanito”, who, as trustworthy yes man assigned years ago to Moscow with his wife, is responsible for guaranteeing for the Cuban government that flights arrive in Varadero and Cayo Coco this October 1st, loaded with tourists.
Blue Diamond and the Canadian hope
Meanwhile, in Canada, the regime is relying completely on the Sunwing Group’s negotiations. The Blue Diamond Hotel Chain, which belongs to Sunwing, is about to become the main hotel company in the island, with already more guest rooms than the Spanish Iberostar, and maybe soon to displace Meliá International from the first place it occupies both for the number of facilities as well as for the quality of service. Blue Diamond works closely and in sync with Gaviota S.A. managing the latter’s properties, especially in Cayo Largo del Sur, where it now has four hotels and seven villas, for a total of 1,348 guest rooms. It will add 250 additional guest rooms once the Royalton Cayo Largo has been finished; that inauguration is projected for 2025.
According to information provided by Ministry of Tourism sources to CubaNet, Blue Diamond’s sudden enthusiasm with respect to Cuba stems, in great measure, from the decisions of Eric Rodríguez, executive vice president for Strategic Association. There are family ties between Rodríguez and Lessner Gómez, who was designated in 2019 as director of Cuba’s Tourism Desk in Toronto, after having been marketing director of the Cubanacán Travel Agency in Cao Coco, and assistant delegate for the Tourism Ministry in Ciego de Ávila.
“The relationship with Lessner has been fundamental in the decision-making of Sunwing (Blue Diamond), which is why he was assigned to Toronto,” states one of our sources. “Without Lessner’s influence, in addition to all the guarantees they have had to give Sunwing, like free importing of food products for its facilities and the big chunk of money he takes –almost 70%- for his own, Blue Diamond would not have expanded like it has,” our source concludes.
Having presented the “Unique Cuba” campaign on June 21st of this year, there seems to be great expectations in Canada about the flow of tourists to Cuba. According to information revealed by Sunwing through a statement by Eric Rodríguez himself, there will be a harsh winter and there is real accumulated demand, with anticipated reservations way above prior 2018-2019 levels. We should wait and see how documented those expectations really are.
Blue Diamond’s growth in Cuba in recent years, and especially in recent months in 2022, has been huge. At present, throughout the island, not counting the facilities in Cayo Largo, it manages more than a dozen hotels, among them: Memories Miramar Habana; Memories Jibacoa; Memories Varadero; Grand Memories Varadero and Sanctuary; Royalton Varadero; Mystique Casa Perla by Royalton; Starfish Cuatro Palmas and Las Palmas; Starfish Varadero; Memories Flamenco; Memories Paraíso; Grand Memories Cayo Santamaría and Sanctuary, and Memories Caribe.
In Cayo Largo, it rencently acquired the totality of facilities, which will be renamed Memories Cayo Largo; Grand Memories Cayo Largo and Sanctuary; Memories Villas Cayo Largo; Starfish Cayo Largo, and the future Royalton Cayo Largo Hotel.
Of great importance, also, have been the acquisition of the Paseo del Prado Hotel, renamed the Royalton Habana, and the Mistyque Regis Hotel recently inaugurated on the famous Havana boulevard.
In Cayo Santa María, the Blue Diamond complex, Memories and Sanctuary, has 1,386 guest rooms, a bit more than what it will now have in Cayo Largo. The Starfish Cayo Santa María alone is an enormous complex with 1,300 guest rooms, which brings the number of guest rooms managed by the Canadian company to more than 3,000.
The flights program from Canada will have direct itineraries every Friday starting on November 4th, 2022 through April 7th, 2023 for the Montreal-Cayo Largo routes. Flights from Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec are scheduled for every Saturday between December 17th and April 7th.
According to information provided by Ministry of Tourism sources to CubaNet, more than half of the 381 hotels in operation in the island are closed at present due to a decline in tourism, while the rest operated with a very low occupancy rate averaging 14% during the first half of 2022. Luxury hotels, such as the recently inaugurated Grand Aston and Hotel Packard, barely achieved 5% occupancy.
These are extremely low numbers, which could have been worse had it not been for domestic tourism. During July and August, Cuban nationals accounted for practically 100% of hotel occupants at the Varadero and Jardines del Rey resorts. It remains to be seen if, in October and November, the influx of Russian and Canadian visitors can finally reverse the catastrophic trend of tourism in Cuba.
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