Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Tourism-dependent Cuba faced tough obstacles during COVID as its main market, Canada, was largely absent due to Ottawa’s (now lifted) travel restrictions.
But the Spanish-speaking island country known for its white-sand beaches, cigars, mojitos, vintage cars and salsa music didn’t come to a dead stop during the pandemic, using the last two years to beef up infrastructure and renovate many hotels.
The outcome is a new and improved Cuba, and with winter now in full swing (and as sun-seeking Canadians return), hopes of achieving tourism stability on the island have never been higher.
A group of 15 travel advisors from Ontario and Atlantic Canada recently got an on-the-ground look at “the new Cuba” with Transat on a one-week FAM through historic Havana and the beach town of Varadero.
The action-packed tour from Dec. 8-15 gave agents (some of which were visiting Cuba for the first time) a chance to tour many hotels – 24 in total! – and ask a lot of questions.
READ MORE: Cuba calling – Canadian advisors tour 24 hotels in Havana & Varadero with Transat
Participants also experienced a wild “Jeep Safari,” led by Cubatur, out of Varadero.
The full-day excursion led agents underground to swim in Cueva de Saturno, or “Saturn Cave,” snorkel over a barrier reef at Playa Coral, indulge on crispy BBQ chicken at a ranch and steer speedboats up the Rio Canimar, a river that flows between two jungle-like hills near the city of Matanzas.
The group, at one point, even got stuck in a backroad traffic jam of parading cows.
“I think the one thing we all walked away with is that there is something for every client in Cuba,” trip leader Sherri Bourne, Transat’s business development representative in Atlantic Canada, told PAX, which covered the FAM exclusively.
Air Transat, notably, just resumed direct flights to Havana from Montreal.
And travellers can combine an urban getaway in Havana with an all-inclusive vacation in Varadero – transfers included – with Transat's Duo package, which offers departures from Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, Moncton, Montreal and Quebec City.
Free Wi-Fi at all hotels
The first thing we noticed in post-pandemic Cuba, which lifted all COVID-related travel restrictions in early 2022, is a changed Wi-Fi – a longtime “tumultuous topic” among tourists, as Bourne put it.
Internet is now free at all hotels in Cuba, eliminating those time-limited, pay-per-use scratch cards that were required for surfing the web in pre-pandemic times.
Visitors using Cuba’s new Wi-Fi system, which kicked in last summer, are now handed a receipt at check-in that displays a unique log-in name and password (one for each device).
Complimentary internet access, once logged in, can last for up to two (or more) hours, depending on the hotel’s policy. But the time can be topped up, for free, when needed.
“It’s definitely an improvement,” Bourne said.
Wi-Fi in Cuba is also stronger than it was in 2019, extending beyond hotel lobbies, where visitors would once huddle to access whatever signal they could find.
But it’s still a work in progress. There are dead zones and not all resorts promise connectivity in every room (yet).
Depending on where your client is staying, the lobby may still be the best bet for Facebook and email.
Still, Cuba’s internet has modernized in never-before-seen ways.
At the new 600-room Grand Aston La Habana (in Havana), for example, we were able to secure a continuous Wi-Fi connection on a laptop in our room on the twenty-second storey – at speeds comparable to those in Canada.
In Varadero, at the 827-room Iberostar Selection Bella Vista, staff proudly promote the fact that Wi-Fi, “on good days,” can now reach the beach.
This may sound like baby steps, but they’re important steps as Cuba evolves to meet the demands of today’s travellers.
New rules for beach bars
Beach bars in Cuba have also either been remodeled or moved off the beach in order to meet new sustainability rules mandated by the Cuban government.
Depending on the hotel, visitors may have to take a few steps off the beach (down a sandy pathway, for instance) to grab that piña colada or Cuba libre.
PAX later confirmed with the Cuba Tourist Board of Canada that the location of new beach bars must now be pre-approved by environmental specialists.
Older bars that were built directly on sand dunes, or too close to the water, are now being rebuilt over pylons, for instance, to preserve the local ecology.
Either way, guests are still able to enjoy bar service on the beach.
As for currency, the CUC has been taken out of circulation and payment can now be made in resort areas with debit or Visa credit cards.
Tourists can use the Cuban peso (CUP) if they travel outside of tourist zones. But depending on the product or service, Canadian or U.S. cash is also sometimes accepted.
Hoteliers used their time wisely during COVID to make other improvements and changes.
In Varadero, at the 272-room Iberostar Tainos, guests will find bungalows that have been enhanced with renovations.
The adults-only (16+), 391-room Iberostar Playa Alameda, which is part of Transat’s Solo Collection (no single supplement on select rooms), has also renovated its superior rooms and suites with modernized touches.
At the 443-room Sirenis Tropical Varadero (formally a Be Live), a new product for Transat, the hotel’s bones may be 25 years old, but the property, with attractive oceanfront suites, was upgraded last year.
The 148-room Be Live Las Morlas had a major reno in 2016, but is currently updating its duplex rooms, providing a fresh option for those repeat family guests.
Clients can expect fresh paint at the 490-room Meliá Varadero, which underwent a soft reno during COVID, updating rooms with new furnishings.
And some properties are just brand-spanking new, such as the aforementioned Grand Aston La Habana, which Indonesia-based Archipelago International opened last March.
There’s also the 321-suite, modern and upscale Iberostar Grand Packard, which opened on Havana’s emblematic Paseo del Prado, near the city’s Velasco palace and National Capitol buildings, in 2018.
“The best of both worlds”
Old Havana is where we toured two fantastic boutique hotels by Hoteles Habaguanex that are new to Transat’s portfolio – the recently-opened Marques de Cardenas Monte Hermoso (21 rooms) and Hotel Palacio De Los Corredores (56 rooms).
The reasonable nightly rates - especially for stays in Presidential Suites - at both hotels impressed the group.
“It’s a new market,” Bourne said of boutique stays. “We're seeing more clients who don’t want the same cookie-cutter vacation.”
And with Transat’s Duo package: “You get the best of both worlds,” she said – an all-inclusive stay (in Varadero) and culture time in Havana – such as a night out at the Tropicana Club, where dozens of dancers in brightly-coloured feather outfits dazzle and delight.
One Havana must-see is the Hotel Nacional, a club house for the Mafia in the 1930s, and once a playground for Golden Age names like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ava Garner, Mickey Mantle, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway (and many others).
READ MORE: Cuba Tourist Board - ready for a successful winter season
The seaside hotel, a mishmash of art deco and neo-colonial styles, has a showcase museum, just beyond the lobby, featuring neat artifacts (like a trunk that was forgotten in a baggage room in 1930) and photographs of famous past guests.
This, alone, is worth a look-see.
New in Varadero
Back in Varadero, there’s the new (and very slick) 946-room Meliá Internacional Varadero, which opened in 2019 in an iconic oceanfront location.
The 356-room Sol Varadero Beach (formally Sol Sirenas Coral) is another newcomer for adults (age 16+) that reopened in 2021 – with a facelift.
Here, you can tell parent company Meliá got its hands on the design, which boasts clean lines, contemporary textiles and pops of punchy colour.
This property impressed both Rosanne Lemdal of Seaside Vacations and Leah Jacobs of Flight Centre Groups Canada.
“It’s beautiful…and the food looks great, too,” Lemdal told PAX.
Lemdal, for one, appreciated all the connecting rooms she saw at the all-inclusive resorts in Varadero. “There are great opportunities for families of five (or more) here,” she said.
Jacobs, who specializes in groups, lauded the value that comes with a Cuba vacation. Price points are typically lower in Cuba, which, for Jacobs, results in a lot of bachelor/bachelorette bookings.
“Sometime [clients] don’t want to put out a huge amount of money. If you’re talking 20 people who want a vacation, there’s a great opportunity in Cuba,” she said.
Group celebrations, in particular, after two years of pandemic-induced separation, are what’s driving a lot of business these days, she said.
Agents, additionally, toured resorts in Varadero that cater to niche markets, like golf groups.
The 340-room, adults-only (18+) Meliá Las Américas, for example, is a golfer’s haven – it’s only a three-minute walk to Varadero Golf Club.
The food question
Cuba’s hotels have also “done a great job” at keeping up with food supply, Jacobs added.
Whether it was breads, pastas, eggs, meats, fish or fruit: “I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of food that was available,” she said.
Cuban cuisine can be wonderfully flavourful. However, due to limitations around the importation and distribution of ingredients in Cuba, the food at some hotels can be hit and miss.
Cuba may not be a destination for foodies, Bourne admitted, but “we were definitely wow’d a few times,” she said, reflecting on the FAM.
Succulent surf and turf (lobster and steak) was in abundance and the flavourful fare Meliá Internacional Varadero served us one night at a glam outdoor buffet made our taste buds sing.
Cuba’s repeat guests generally enjoy the country’s smooth, pristine beaches (they really are fabulous) and sense of safety, Bourne explained.
The country’s incredibly friendly people – one aspect of Cuba that hasn’t changed – is another major draw.
As we witnessed over breakfast each morning at the 386-room Iberostar Selection Varadero, smiling staff were pouring coffee within seconds of guests sitting down at their tables, offering warm, personalized service that’s unheard of in some parts of the Caribbean.
“The people are amazing,” noted Alyson Thompson, Transat’s sales coordinator for English Canada. “They will do whatever they can to make your stay fantastic.”
Webinar on Jan. 20
Transat’s pro tip for Cuba? “Book early,” said Bourne, who will be hosting a Cuba webinar on Jan. 20 at 11 a.m. EST (watch Transat’s trade Facebook page here for registration details).
“We’re seeing departures sell out months in advance. People have missed travel immensely,’ Bourne said. “Book early to get the best pricing and the best product.”
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