HAVANA, Cuba — A mix of Jamaican and Cuban travel professionals used National Heroes’ weekend to sample some of the hitherto unknown thrills of Cuban tourism by heading straight to where the action exists.
Twelve-year-old Caribbean Latin Travel Consultant Ltd, headquartered in New Kingston, dispatched a huge chunk of its staff to explore the unknown in the socialist country’s tourism product, with a view to giving its clients, who often visit the land, a sounder perspective on what to expect when they come seeking a place outside of Jamaica to relax and unwind.
The brainchild of the trip, company general manager, Colombia-born Yeni Larrahondo, who has made Jamaica her home for 22 years, insists that the move was designed to not only educate staff, practically, about what they are selling to clients, but to offer them a chance to relax in a different atmosphere once the possibility existed.
But for a bird which decided to voluntarily shorten its life by landing in one of the engines of the returning aircraft which led to a delay by the Honduran carrier taking the explorers back to their native and adopted land when the mission ended, they would speak, with much enthusiasm, energy and vigour about how rewarding the adventure was to the business that they represent with absolute commitment.
Venturing through the Cayman Islands and landing in the Cuba capital of European-style Havana early afternoon Friday, the group soon set about next morning to see what opportunities were there to boost the business. They found many.
Stoutly led by tour guide Carlos Jesus Mestre Lopez, and with backup ground support from Havana-based Caribbean and Latin Travel’s Sales Executive Marta de la Concepcion, wife of former number two man at the Cuban Embassy in Kingston, Ricardo Tur Novo, whose sons also served at the mission, it was non-stop action as the team decided to see what was not only available, but feasible.
Bus driver Manuel Alexis Heredia, too, had his hands full getting to each destination with steady, calculated driving, even, after tips from incoming motorists, evading the odd ‘speed trap’ along some of the island’s well-paved roads.
“I now have a much better idea of how to sell packages. I am impressed with what I have seen in the country that I was born and it is very inspiring to me and my team,” said supervisor of sales and customer service at Caribbean and Latin Travel Consultant, Rafael Eloy Sanchez Thomas, whom his colleagues and friends call ‘Pluto’.
“This is very good for us as agents, and now we know what to tell our clients,” added sales and customer service rep Kimberli Spence.
By early last Saturday, the game for the fit had started, as it was from one resort to the next, assessing what was going on at the hotels in Havana, which left the Jamaica-based team wide-eyed in amazement at what was being served on a platter for guests.
Not all listed could be covered in that heartbeat of the island of 11.3 million inhabitants, but the offerings from the first one visited — the Hotel Capri — whetted the appetite for much more to come.
By time the group arrived at Marina Hemingway to see the Old Man and the Sea Hotel, translated in English, or El Viejo y El Mar in the Spanish tongue, it was clear that Cuba, its tourism product though chocked and in instances gasping for breath as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, was like a plant responding well to rain water.
“We have a really nice hotel here,” said manager of the four-star property Roberto Hernandez. “When our marlin tournament is on, we get lots of visitors, even from Jamaica, some competing in the tournament and other involved in yachting and diving,” he added of the hotel which was once a stop for legendary American author Ernest Hemingway, who fell in love with Cuba and spent many years there, though he shot himself to death following a bout of depression in 1961.
“This is really good here. I would come back here anytime,” muttered sales and customer service agent Abigail Hew.
Onward to the Aquarium Hotel, the Commodoro, showcasing a set of attractive bungalows, and hopping over to the Melia Havana, a five-star, 397-room vacation spot, one of 35 Melia locations on the island, it was clear to everyone that Cuba has more to offer than earlier information suggested.
“We at Melia Havana have the most beautiful swimming pool in the country, after this hotel was opened by Fidel Castro in 1998,” Sales Manager Jose Negril stated, as he glanced at a working television queerly screwed down inside the elevator.
Perhaps though, one of the properties that had the group spellbound was the Paseo Del Prado, a relatively new hotel which operates under the Royalton brand.
“I would come back to Cuba just to stay at this property,” stated junior accountant at Caribbean and Latin Travel Consultant Anna-Kay Neil.
Opened in 2019, but closed for two years because of the pandemic, the hotel of 250 rooms, equipped with a ‘transit’ or waiting room, a medical doctor and nurse around the clock, similar to some other properties, has 21 types of rooms, according to young Sales and Marketing Manager Amanda Penafiel Mena.
The Telegrapho Hotel, the first built in Cuba, in 1860; the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski were among the others which found favour with the information seekers, following lunch at the famous Le Bodeguito Del Medio Restaurant, opened in 1942, and a place famous for its mix of mojito, a drink of rum laced with mint.
And for those who did not know of the Cuban tourism product as a real threat to many of the other established locations, the tour of resorts in Varadero, Matanza Province, left them with no doubt, after they set foot on some of the 64 all-inclusive resorts, owned by the Government, though, in some cases, managed by premium global brands.
For Jamaicans who know of the offerings of Negril in the western end of the island, the salubrious climate of Varadero and its array of hotels, most of them located on a 14-kilometre stretch of white sand beaches, would leave them in utter, but pleasant shock.
It’s a regular thing for swimmers to venture out up to 50 metres at sea without the water passing the waist, and the warmth of the liquid makes it easy for those who are afraid of water at chilly temperatures.
“This place even offers more than Negril. It is stunningly beautiful, the water is warm, even at night, and the flat white sand is better than anything that I have experienced,” one guest familiar with both locations added.
According to Cuban officials, 56 of the hotels along the stretch were built over the last 20 years. They include the Brisas Del Caribe, Hotel Roc, Melia International, itself a magnificent 946-room family setup with an ‘adults-only’ area, and 1,000 capacity convention centre.
A majority of tourists visit from Canada, France, and other European countries. And although, an economic blockade has been imposed by the United States for over 60 years, many of its citizens also dive into the island’s offerings.
To cap the tour, a Cuban salsa song and dance duo, backed by a small band, met the delegation near the lobby of the Taxpan Resort Hotel with a driving rendition of Bob Marley and the Wailers’s hit tune, No Woman No Cry.
One Jamaican journalist, pounced upon by a delightfully charming young Cuban woman to do the dance, promptly offered the excuse of having to take notes, thus copping out of an opportunity to show his true value.
Officials at Taxpan, led by General Manager Yelena Gomez, dug deep to project the 232-room hotel, built 33 years ago, and which proudly operates the popular Mexican-themed La Bamba Discotheque.
“This trip has enlightened me about Cuba. Before, we were exposed to the negatives. I am floored to see Cuba in itself — exhilarating, informative…it is such a beautiful country. I am in awe. I was particularly happy with visiting the Royalton Hotel in Havana. It was truly great,” stated Neil.
For Hew, she liked the matter of feeling safe at night. “You can go on the street anytime you feel like. I also love the vintage cars. The Cubans treat you like family, they make nothing bother them. There are always smiles on their faces.
“One drawback might be the currency market, because some people would go to Cuba and not know that there are restrictions to using the US dollar, and they need euro or Canadian dollars, and credit cards that are not aligned to United States banks.”
Spence described the experience as “wonderful”, highlighting the hospitality offered by the hotels, places to sightsee, and the cuisine.
“I would highly recommend Cuba as a good product. It’s a big deal,” Spence said. “I enjoyed the warmth and friendliness of the people. The overall reception, accommodation and entertainment were excellent. Having personally experienced the grandeur of Cuba’s hotel and tourism industry, I will be better able to introduce and market the relevant products and services in a more appealing and attractive way to our customers and all who choose to do business with our company.”
Cuban-born Josue Borrero Ricardo, originally from Holgin in the east of the island, admired the positive growth of his homeland.
“I love Old Havana. Although I was born in Cuba, I had only visited Havana one time before. In Old Havana the food is cheaper and the buildings are different from those in Holguin. Like Varadero, Holguin has many fine beaches too, so it’s all good.”
His older brother, Carlos Borrero Ricardo, found the trip a “good experience”. He, also from Holguin originally, visited Havana four times, though it was his first trip to Varadero.
“The price for hotels in Cuba is good. I would tell those that I would sell packages to that the place is great — the good music, like salsa, good food, sexy girls, you name it.
“One payment may be the payment system, and sometimes the Wi-Fi is not so strong,” Carlos said.
“We really had a good time in Old Havana, walking around and greeting the people. The vintage cars and Crystal Beer were great,” added Neil.
Hew interjected: “Clients will remark, ‘Have you been to the destination?’ They will ask detailed questions about the resort which we can’t always answer, so it’s good that we came.”
‘Pluto’ the tour comedian, originally from Camaguey in the central region, highlighted the tour as a “really great one”, and proceeded to label it as an “outstanding experience.
“I would recommend that we as travel agents do this more often — to go and visit different destinations, so that you are better off in educating the client, and more people would trust the company. We can also now better explain things to the client,” he stated.
Not to be outdone, Havana-born senior accountant Darhyl Lavalle Sanchez, with fiancee Elizabeth Delgado Navarro in tow, underscored the importance of teamwork.
“It was an opportunity to know each other better, because we share daily duties at the office at work, but not like this. The company can grow when we can work as a team.
“I went back to my homeland, saw my family and it was also good to look at the hotels. We now can sell the product. Before, they were blind; they now know what to tell the customer,” the University of Havana graduate said.