Three new or refurbished tourist hotels -- including only the second five-star hotel built in Cuba since the revolution -- have just opened their doors to an international clientele.
It's part of Cuba's drive to create more than 30,000 hotel rooms for the international market by 1995, and to breathe new life into its staggering economy.
Though President Fidel Castro insists that Cuba won't abandon socialism for capitalism, Cuba's ambitious plans count heavily on foreign capital and joint ventures with international investors.
Cuba, says Mr. Castro, is good business. "Where else could they get their money back in such a short time?" he asked during the weekend inauguration of the 490-room Melia Varadero.
"Our partners contribute capital, technology and part of the market and Cuba contributes construction materials, a skilled work force and personnel with a higher scholastic level than in other countries," Mr. Castro said.
In addition to the five-star Melia Varadero, a joint venture between the Cuban tourism enterprise Cubanacan and the Spanish Grupo Sol, the 250-room Punta Arenas, a project of the Cuban tourism agency INTUR, and the former Los Cactus Hotel hTC -- rechristened as the 160-room Super Club Varadero -- were inaugurated recently.
The Super Club Varadero is a joint venture with Jamaica-based Super Clubs, headed by John Issa. Super Clubs -- one of the biggest resort operators in Jamaica -- operates five all-inclusive Jamaican hotels and franchises another in St. Lucia.
The Melia Varadero, a tiered structure with corner balconies off each room, is part of a major financial commitment in Cuba by Grupo Sol. It also includes the four-star Sol Palmares, opened last year in Varadero; a 200-bungalow complex; and a 250-suite golf resort -- the five-star Melia America -- scheduled to open in October. The completed project will represent a $150-million investment by the Sol group.
Abraham Maciques, the president of Cubanacan, reiterated last month Cuban confidence that the projected new rooms -- mostly in four- and five-star hotels -- would be ready within three years.
Nearing completion in Havana are the new five-star Cohiba Hotel, and the restoration of the Hotel Nacional, which was completed in 1929. The restoration, expected to bring the Nacional up to its old five-star luster, is scheduled for completion by May.
But some Caribbean tourism officials -- though they admit that Cuba has the potential to once again become a major player in the regional tourism industry -- are skeptical that the Cubans can move quite as quickly as they project.
"I have doubts about Cuba fulfilling its predictions," said Jean Holder, who heads the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization. "It won't jump to millions overnight because they can't put more people in there than they have rooms."
"Tourism is absolutely going to happen in Cuba. It won't happen quickly, but it will go," said John Bell, executive director of the Puerto Rico-based Caribbean Hotel Association, during the recent Miami Conference on the Caribbean.
One scenario is that if Cuba becomes a tourism powerhouse again it will be a disaster for the rest of the Caribbean. But Ms. Holder said, "I refuse to see every new competitor in the market as a threat to everyone else."
New flights to Cuba from Spain, Italy, and Germany have been a big boost to Cuban tourism, and Ms. Holder said it's possible that Cuba could eventually become a Caribbean hub for European visitors who might then fan out to the other islands.
As for U.S. interest in investing in Cuba, Mr. Bell said, "I think it's no question that the major hotel chains are salivating." But unless there is a change in U.S. or Cuban policy that would prompt the United States to lift the economic embargo against ** the island, they can do little more than make contingency plans.