Cuba: Everything old is new again

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Cuba: Everything old is new again

Whether your image of Havana runs to Cold War bombs or “Babalu,” one thing is for certain, that tiny island 90-miles off the coast of Florida is about to undertake an unprecedented travel boom. And like any explosion, there will be collateral damage, in this case the charm of an old-school world which may soon be washed away by a corporate tsunami.

What this means for corporate meeting planners is that the clock is ticking. Streets now filled with 1950s Chevys with big fins are sure to be replaced by top-of-the-line Toyota SUVs, and billboards with paintings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will soon be covered over by a 30-foot Tom Brady selling Uggs.

So for corporate incentive planners tired of sending their top salespeople to local golf resorts, the timing is just right. Travel restrictions have lifted. Major airlines have expressed an interest in operating flights to Cuba, including JetBLue which looks to fly out of Logan. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still time to enjoy perfect beaches, traditional foods and the unblemished hospitality of its people.

You will also find that you won’t be annoyed by people chatting on their cell phones at the table next to you while dining out, or get run over by a teenager in the street with their head down and their thumbs doing the texting tango. It’s been estimated that only 5% of the population has regular access to the internet and less than 20% own cell phones. But all that will change quickly once telecommunication giants like Verizon and AT&T land on the Cuban shores and cell phone towers start sprouting up like trees. Cuban citizens are panting for technology and connectivity, and they will eventually get their wish.

According to a recent article in the Miami Herald, Cuba is already the second-largest tourism destination in the Caribbean, surpassed only by the Dominican Republic. Last year, Cuba received 3,001,968 stopover visitors — a 5.3% increase — and during the first quarter of this year the Cuban Tourism Ministry said it received a record 1.14 million travelers. The Cuban government estimates that if there were unrestricted travel from the United States,
annual trips by Americans would increase by 1.5 million, generating an extra $2 billion in revenue.

It’s safe to say that much of that revenue will come in the next few years from big and flashy hotels, corporate skyscrapers, Apple stores and McDonald’s. And how soon before we start DVR-ing “Real Housewives of Havana”? The fear isn’t Cuba turning into Las Vegas but becoming another Atlantis or Dubai, where the words “Bigger is Better” might as well be the national motto.

With all we know about Cuba, both past and present—and there are plenty of political warts—some Travel Management Companies (TMCs) may still have issues suggesting to their meeting planners and incentive clients that partaking of the old-world charm of Cuba, before it starts to vanish, is well worth their consideration. But maybe it’s time to start thinking out-of-the-box, before the box gets covered in shiny paper with a neon-lit bow on top? Because it’s been closed so long there’s still a mystery about Cuba. And Americans have always liked a good mystery.

Once restriction-free travel is allowed for U.S. citizens this island nation will fast become the most popular Caribbean destination for tourism and corporate business travel. And once that happens the clock will start ticking if you want to see Cuba before everything old is new again.