The love affair between Cuba and Canadians is a long-lived and happy one, a romance that briefly took centre stage at a major Cuba tourism trade fair held in Havana early in May. The annual event – this year’s episode is called FitCuba 2019 – is the primary showcase for tourism initiatives, products and experiences on the Caribbean’s biggest island.
Canadian visitors to Cuba outnumber those from any other country in the world. According to Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz, Canadians account for 23% of all international visits. “That translates to 1.1 million visitors a year,” Cruz announced during his opening address to the trade show. Nearly half of those are repeat visitors.
Talk about old friends.
On one level that adjective’s completely appropriate. 2019 marks a big anniversary for Havana itself – part of the reason it’s the venue for this year’s events. Though celebrations have been taking place all year, the city’s official birthday – it’s five-hundredth – happens on November 15.
That’s both an enviable age and part of the charm of this historic city.
But this milestone doesn’t mean that tourism options are stagnant, as visitors to the trade show itself discovered. An important show function is showcasing the wealth of new experiences.
In some cases that simply means new looks for old favourites. Many of Havana’s architectural delights are getting well-deserved “birthday” facelifts, most notably the Capitol building, whose big reveal coincides with the anniversary day itself.
But it’s not just refurbished dowagers that characterize today’s Havana.
The Iberostar Grand Packard is a luxury hotel located where Old Havana meets the Malecon, a modern property that nonetheless pays tribute to a long and prestigious history. Just across the street S/O Havana Paseo del Prado is a brand-new hotel scheduled for an early 2020 opening.
But expanding accommodation options aren’t limited to Havana.
Minister Cruz reports that four thousand new rooms will have come on-stream by year’s end.
And it’s not just additional rooms that have energized tourism, a realization that strikes you when you stroll the exhibitors’ presentations strategically located along the parade ground of the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, a seventeenth-century stronghold boasting panoramic views of the old city and the distant blue waters of the Atlantic.
Tourism in Cuba is keeping with the times.
Consider the National Botanical Garden of the University of Havana, roughly twenty-five kilometres outside the city proper. It is, according to director Nora Hernández Monterrey, “the prelude to ecotourism in Cuba.”
Here visitors can experience Cuba’s unique microclimates. Future plans include onsite accommodations that will facilitate complete immersion activities in this five-hundred-fifty-hectare oasis.
Finca Vista Hermosa is an organic farm that’s both visitors’ destination and a pioneer in the “farm to table” movement. Come for a fascinating visit then finish your day back in Havana at Restaurante Mediterráneo, ordering some of their produce from a menu (a welcome
Havana culinary trend) that’s vegetarian-friendly.
Back at the show, a company called Ecotur offers a variety of hiking and touring options. A duet of RV’s is hunkered down in the shadow of the fortress walls. Hit the open road at the wheel of your portable accommodation with a company called “Cuba on the Road” (they also rent e-bikes and scooters). Maybe visit the tent across the way and learn about camping options in Cuba.
For nearly five million visitors annually, the initiatives and incentives presented at this fair are a strong indication that Cuba takes its tourism seriously. More to the point, the fact that the island boasts nine UNESCO Heritage Sites, fourteen National Parks and one hundred sixty kilometres of beaches means that the Cuba’s appeal will never grow old.
In her opening speech to the trade fair, Spain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, María Reyes Maroto Illera referred to the “great historic, natural and cultural heritage of Cuba.”
Christopher Columbus was a little more eloquent.
“The most beautiful islands that human eyes have ever seen.”
MORE ABOUT CUBA
Cuba Tourism: https://www.cubatravel.cu/en
FitCuba 2019: https://www.fitcuba.com/en/