Travel brands and Cuba's ailing infrastructure are already struggling with accommodating 285,000 U.S. travelers per year in and around Havana. What happens when that number multiplies by seven?
It’s not that U.S. travelers aren’t interested in Cuba, it’s that “supply just went crazy” and Americans aren’t familiar with many of the smaller Cuban cities that carriers in the United States were initially enthusiastic about.
That’s the view of Marguerite Fitzgerald, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, who recently surveyed U.S. travelers about their current and future interest in visiting Cuba.
Last year, total airline capacity between five U.S. cities and nine Cuban cities increased to two million seats per year — almost overnight. When U.S. airlines such as American Airlines, JetBlue, and Southwest launched flights to Cuba late last summer, they didn’t consider “the demand wasn’t as high as the sheer volume of flights that airlines were adding all of a sudden,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, who’s traveled to Cuba three times, visited most recently last month when she flew American Airlines between Miami and Havana and said there were many empty seats on the flight.
“Americans only know Havana and our survey found that most of U.S. travel interest in Cuba is for Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city,” she said.
Boston Consulting Group surveyed 500 U.S. travelers ages 18 to 75 online in December 2016 who had taken a vacation in the last two years and were planning to take another trip within the next two years. Respondents also identified as decision makers in their families or those who make decisions on vacations and plan trips.
Respondents also identified as decision makers in their families or those who make decisions on vacations and plan trips. They had also expressed interest in travel to Cuba through their recent Internet browsing history.
Some 30 percent of survey respondents expressed interest in visiting Cuba and more than 80 percent said that they want to go within the next three years.
One-third of those considering a trip to Cuba said they were planning one within next the year and 30 percent had already booked a trip.
Only 10 percent of respondents said they’re interested in visiting other Cuban cities such as Camagüey, Holguín or Matanzas where U.S. airlines initially launched flights to compared to 80 percent who said Havana was their top choice.
With 285,000 U.S. arrivals in Cuba last year, the country is an attractive destination and should be for airlines and other travel brands in coming years. And while there’s momentum for more than seven times as many (two million) U.S. travelers to visit Cuba each year by 2025, some U.S. travel brands went too fast, too soon on Cuba strategies.
What U.S. Travelers Like and Dislike About Cuba
For travelers who weren’t interested in Cuba, 50 percent simply said the country didn’t interest them and 50 percent said they’d rather visit another Caribbean destination first.
With low hotel supply as an obstacle, and the growth of casas particulares, or private homes, available on sites such as Airbnb around the country, 86 percent of respondents said they prefer to stay in hotels and resorts rather than private homes.
One-third of respondents interested in going to Cuba said that they want to experience the country before U.S. visitors have a major impact and 23 percent want to see what life is like under a different political system.
Total arrivals to Cuba this year, including Canadian and European travelers, for example, could hit 4.2 million, said Fitzgerald. “To put that in context, in 2016 the Dominican Republic saw a little more than two million U.S. travelers and five million total arrivals,” she said. “Cuba could become the second biggest Caribbean destination and with much faster growth.”
Outlook For U.S.-Caribbean Travel
The Trump Administration’s policy on Cuba, should it choose to alter the Obama Administration’s progress, could impact U.S. travel growth to Cuba, said Fitzgerald.
But U.S. tourism interest in Cuba already has some neighboring Caribbean destinations worried. “Many people who go to the Dominican Republic want the resort and all-inclusive experience,” said Fitzgerald. “Cuba doesn’t have as much as that and in some places, it doesn’t exist. That will help some other destinations for now.”
Some 60 percent of respondents said they would skip a trip to the Dominican Republic or the U.S. Virgin Islands in favor of Cuba and more than 50 percent said that they would skip a trip to Mexico or the Bahamas.
Cruise lines are also holding out hope — nearly 40 percent of respondents who hadn’t taken a cruise in the past said that they would consider one to Cuba within the next five years. Among respondents who had taken a cruise, nearly two-thirds would consider a cruise to Cuba.
More than 357,000 cruise passengers could visit Cuba from the U.S. between 2017 and 2019 on 211 itineraries from all three major cruise companies, data from the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council show.
In 2017, nearly one million U.S. travelers and Cuban-Americans returning home to visit family could fly to Cuba, said Fitzgerald. “It can be difficult to track how many arrivals are U.S. travelers versus Cuban-Americans because if you were born in Cuba and even if you have a U.S. passport, you have to return to Cuba under a special visa,” she said. “Cuban-Americans are recorded separately and it’s the Cuban government recording them.”
Fitzgerald said nearly 500,000 Cuban-Americans could fly to Cuba each year by 2025 and they’d have different travel profiles from other U.S. travelers. If they visit family, for example, they may not stay in hotels or partake in the same tourist activities as non-Cuban U.S. travelers.
Whether interest becomes actual visits depends on infrastructure improvements, such as larger ports, more hotels and technology upgrades across the country that will take time. While Cuba and U.S. travel brands wrestle with those challenges, many U.S. travelers will see Cuba as an undiscovered, alluring island that represents a new itinerary for Caribbean-lovers who have been to many islands.
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Photo credit: U.S. travel interest in Cuba remains strong but not as high as travel brands initially anticipated. Pictured are U.S. travelers exploring Fusterlandia outside of Havana. Dan Peltier / Skift