Lonely Planet Writer

Cuba undergoes revolutionary tourist boom

The Cuban government is planning to expand the number of its hotel rooms by a third over the next four years to cope with increased visitor numbers.

Havana, Cuba.
Havana, Cuba. Image by Bryan Ledgard / CC BY 2.0

State-run hotel rooms currently number 63,000, and facilities often reflect decades of economic sanctions. The government is seeking foreign investment to add another 22,000 rooms by 2020. The growth is being fueled by recent changes to the sanctions regime imposed by the US. It’s just over a year since the Obama administration relaxed economic sanctions stretching back 55 years, and already tourist arrivals are growing at an unprecedented rate.

In 2015, visitor arrivals to Cuba rose more than 17% year-on-year, and that record is expected to be shattered this year. Visitor arrivals from the US rose 77%, a figure that excludes hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans. It’s still technically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism, but the 12 conditions for legal entry have been significantly broadened.

As a result, Americans are already a common sight in Old Havana. The boom is reported to be having an inflationary effect on the prices of a range of visitor staples, including the prices of meals, taxis, souvenirs and even photo ops with women smoking cigars in colourful dresses. And that’s before the resumption of commercial airline and ferry services from the US later this year.

The change is proving to be a boon to Cuba’s fledgling private sector, especially restaurateurs and landlords renting private rooms. The small number of foreign-operated hotels fills up quickly, especially as American tour groups block out rooms in central Havana locations months in advance. But the state-run hotel sector is struggling under the increased load, while, at Havana’s international airport, a lack of luggage trucks and passenger stairs cause frequent bottlenecks.