The Cuban government is eager to get the trade ban lifted and it's showing that it's serious about competing with other Caribbean islands for tourism now that it's in the U.S. spotlight.
The Cuban government isn’t waiting around for the U.S. Congress to lift the trade ban that would make travel to the island easier for Americans—it’s already analyzing the perceptions that American tourists and others have of its beaches and cities.
Naturally, the decision to reestablish relations between the two countries didn’t happen overnight, but it appears tourism was a key concern for Cuba’s government leading up to the historic announcement President Barack Obama made in mid-December.
Hugo Sanchez, COO of Socialvane, a social data analytics company based in Minorca, Spain, said his company signed a contract with Cuba in December just before Obama’s announcement to create a partnership between the Cuban Ministry of Tourism and his company. The goal is to study the online perceptions American tourists have of the island’s hotels and destinations, see how Cuba’s online reputation compares to other islands as well as measure what different demographics of tourists are most interested in when traveling to the island.
Sanchez said he and his colleagues traveled to the island just after the announcement was made in December to meet with Ministry of Tourism officials to outline what the partnership would involve between the government and company.
“It was easier than people can imagine during our initial talks with Cuba,” said Sanchez. “It was a pretty amazing experience because Internet access in Cuba was shoddy so we didn’t know what was really going on in the news and what people were saying about the U.S. and Cuba.”
“This kind of analytical mindset isn’t new to [Cuba] and the [Ministry of Tourism analytics team] existed long before we showed up and regularly reported their data to the government. What we are doing is helping Cuba monitor almost the whole Caribbean region to understand the trends and travel dynamics that underlie it and this is helping Cuban authorities to optimize the important investments it should make in its travel industry.”
Sanchez said initially a Cuban tourism company, Grupo Gaviota, was working with the Ministry of Tourism to measure the tourism reputation and readiness of a handful of the country’s hotels. Socialvane was brought on upon a recommendation from a native Minorcan working in Cuba once the government decided to expand the project nationally to include more than 300 hotels.
For background, running a hotel in Cuba is much different than how it’s done in the U.S. A hotel must be government-run to operate on the island or have signed agreements with foreign companies that will provide resources for a hotel and in turn the hotel must share those resources and profits with the government, ultimately amounting to a 50/50 share in profits.
What’s Being Analyzed?
The partnership essentially involves the Ministry of Tourism using a suite of tools available on Socialvane’s platform that helps measure overall perceptions, interest and satisfaction with travel to Cuba through keywords travelers use in more than seven million Twitter and Instagram comments each month (Twitter and Instagram are the main sources of data but not the only ones).
The Ministry of Tourism’s analytics team, which is carrying out all the analysis, is also comparing the online reputation of Cuba’s hotels and destinations to 65 specific resorts and cities in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.
This includes using filters highlighting semantic associations with particular destinations during specific time periods. In a popular resort town such as Varadero, for example, data show words associated with “market,” “festival” and “party” are frequently used on tourists’ social media because of that town’s famous farmers markets and celebrations.
More broadly, the data show Americans are more interested in enjoying Cuba’s culture than Canadians as the latter, Cuba’s largest inbound arrivals market, are more keen on spending time on beaches. Beaches also rank as slightly less important for American tourists versus Canadians.
“One of the most important things that we are doing is helping Cuba identify the most important demand drivers in each destination for each one of the most important source markets,” said Sanchez. “But we are also measuring the levels of security perceived by tourists or the overall hotel reputation and satisfaction, etc.”
Data also revealed there’s not much difference between four and five-star hotels in a place like Varadero, in terms of American and other tourists’ perceptions, compared to three-star hotels in Cuba which are perceived far more negatively for their quality and offerings.
Socialvane illustrated results like these through maps of Cuba and the Caribbean to make it simpler to compare Cuba’s tourism reputation with its competitors, which Sanchez said was the first major challenge in advising the government on which direction the partnership should take.
“It seems like the Ministry of Tourism really wants this to be a long-term relationship and right now there’s no end date for our partnership,” he said. “Cuba’s investing a lot of money, time and talent in using our analytics tools and it’s very important to them.”
Photo credit: Cubans talking as they stand in a street in Havana, Cuba. Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press