2017 will be a decisive year for Cuba's travel industry, a year in which the country is dealing with two different sources of uncertainty. One on hand, we have the Trump wild card and whether the new U.S. President will live up to his promises of reversing Obama's rapprochement with Cuba if, in his own words, the island "is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people".
His threat has gravely concerned all U.S. companies with current business interests in Cuba, who are all counting on the new president to listen to his good business sense and leave political stances out of the equation.
On the other hand, Cuba just lost their commander-in-chief, Fidel Castro, last November, and the effects of his passing are yet to be determined. Their current leader, Fidel's younger brother, Raul, who has led the island through its biggest period of change in over five decades, has also confirmed he will be leaving office in February 2018, and what will unfold next politically and economically, no one knows.
But the truth remains that, even if Trump were to reverse Obama's easing of rules regarding travel to Cuba for American citizens (which I highly doubt will happen anytime soon), Cuba's appeal to all other foreign tourists around the world will not diminish in the least.
In fact, figures show a marked increase of European, Russian and Latin American visitors over the last year and, as the island continues to evolve and change while (painstakingly slowly) reforming its economic model; more and more curious travellers will be drawn to its shores to get a glimpse of the romantic island barely touched by time, with its living pieces of nostalgia, its vibrant people, its intoxicating music and its undying resolution to take adversity with a pinch of salt, and keep on smiling, singing and dancing whatever comes their way.
Preparing to welcome more visitors than ever, regardless of whether we take into account the projected 300,000+ U.S. visitors expected in 2017 (if relations with the U.S. remain unchanged,) Cuba keeps on working hard at attracting more foreign investors to take over the management of aging properties as well to expand the number of rooms with new hotel builds.
Without further ado, these are the biggest Cuba hotel openings in store for 2017 and 2018:
- Gran Hotel Kempinski La Habana - Manzana de Gomez, Havana (2017)
- Hotel Packard, Havana (2017)
- Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria (2017)
- Angsana Cayo Santa Maria (2017)
- Centara Grand Beach Resort Cayo Guillermo (2017)
- Hotel Internacional Varadero (2018)
- Paradisus Cayo Santa Maria (2018)
Seven hotels in two years might not seem like a huge deal, but for Cuba this certainly is a remarkable figure, especially when you consider this island nation is not known for getting things done in a hurry. Due dates are kind of a lose concept and hotel openings are often pushed back by a few months or longer, although in more recent years deadlines have been met with more accuracy.
This, has been, in part, largely due to the fact that the foreign companies building new hotels in Cuba have also brought large foreign workforce to speed things along. Such was the case of French construction group Bouygues who employed over 200 Indian labourers to work on various of their hotels projects, namely the new Gran Hotel Kempinski La Habana being built on Manzana de Gomez and the new Hotel Packard (already under way), as well as the new Hotel Prado y Malecon and the refurbishment of the Regis and the Gran Hotel Metropolitano, also in Havana, with these latter projects still being in their first phase of construction.
But, there's far more than seven new hotels on the pipeline, I've just listed here the top seven expected to open the soonest, the majority of which are expected to welcome guests sometime this year. Beyond these top seven new Cuba hotels, there are plans for many more but their due by date has either not been published or is more vaguely presented as somewhere between 2017 and 2020.
Now, to better enlighten you on Cuba's top new hotel gems opening this year and the next, I'll proceed to describe in more detail the location of each new hotel or resort, as well as give some background info on their expected size, marketing strategy, location and star rating.
In Havana – Kempinski leads the way
Probably the most highly anticipated of Cuba hotels to open this year is Kempinski's first ever venture in the Cuban capital, as the prestigious Swiss hotel chain took over the legendary (and aging) Manzana de Gomez building to convert it into a boutique luxury hotel, setting the benchmark of ultra-luxury in Havana.
Initially scheduled to open in October 2016, by July 2016 the project had been lagging so far behind that Kempinski was forced to publicly announce that the new hotel property would not be ready in time, without specifying a new opening date. According to an experienced local site manager interviewed by Diario de Cuba, it was very likely the project would take another year to be ready, which makes October 2017 a tempting opening date. With not much to go on, the earliest we could see it opening if workers pick up the pace at full speed, would be somewhere around Easter 2017.
Refurbishing the long-decaying and crumbling Manzana de Gomez hotel is no mean feat, and in a way Kempinski was over-ambitious with its plan to have it ready in just 31 months.
Once ready, it is poised to instantly become Havana's most luxurious hotel, with 246 spacious rooms and suites scattered over five floors, featuring extra high ceilings large French windows opening out onto the old city and Parque Central. With the original building dating back to 1917 and initially built as an European-style block housing offices with a ground-floor shopping arcade, it is expected that restoration works will maintain a large amount of its original features and grand classical façade.
Facilities are to include a cigar lounge, a rooftop panoramic bar and restaurant offering spectacular city views, a spa, fitness centre and a rooftop pool.
The soon-to-open hotel already has an official website and in it Kempinski reveals the details of the new structure with no online booking options as of yet, although they do provide an email address for reservations.
On the other hand, we have the complete overhaul and refurbishment of yet another colonial masterpiece, the revamping of the Hotel Packard, which not long ago lay in an overwhelming state of ruins, invaded by vines and plants, just a shell of its former grand self, withering away at a drastic pace. Such deterioration has been halted since it was announced a few years back that Iberostar would be overseeing the restoration and rebuilding of the Packard to return it to its glory as a new luxury hotel.
With a very special location in the centric Paseo del Prado, just footsteps away from Old Havana's wonders and right at the heart of the famous Prado promenade (brought to international attention last year as it was the chosen open-air runway for Chanel's fashion show in Cuba), there's a lot of mystery surrounding Hotel Packard's reopening. Sources are scarce and none confirm a clear opening date, which means this project could be further delayed and not finished this year or the next. At first, it was revealed that it would open in 2017 and the Spanish Iberostar group would be managing the property once ready, but since it has emerged that the project has passed hands from Iberostar, adding further uncertainty to its opening date.
Will it open on schedule sometime this year? No one seems to know, not much has been said lately to confirm or dispel this. But thinking back on its heyday, when the Hotel Packard was famous for hosting a number of illustrious guests such as Pablo Neruda or Marlon Brando, I can only imagine that with the amount of celebrities rushing back to Havana nowadays, the list of famous guests will start growing once again.
Other Havana Hotels to open soon, a year later
There have also been widespread rumours about other old, decaying hotels around Havana being given a new lease of life. Rumours have later turned into confirmation as various official Cuban sources have revealed that groundwork has already been laid for the restoration projects. We're talking about three more hotels to grace the Old Havana scene before the end of 2018, namely the Prado y Malecon, the Regis and the Gran Hotel Metropolitano (which might be shortened to Gran Hotel. With the remodelling these trio already underway but no clear information on the deadline or or who will be managing them, my only guess is that, at their most optimistic they'll be ready before 2018 ends.
Four more to come in the form of boutique gems in Old Havana before 2019 ends
Habaguanex, the national Havana-based hotel chain responsible for restoring so many crumbling buildings in Old Havana to turn them into hotels (which would later help fund community projects to rescue decaying residential structures) announced last year the opening of a further four new boutique hotels across Old Havana. The timeline for these was as vague as any, with the government-run company stating they would be ready sometime between 2017-2019.
The hotels in question are the 57-room Cueto located in Plaza Vieja, the 21-room Marques de Cardenas de Monte Hermoso in the San Francisco de Asis Square, the Real Aduana also directly overlooking the San Francisco de Asis Square and the 24-room Catedral, aptly named due to its location one block east of the Havana Cathedral. All of these will offer exceptional accommodation at some of the city's oldest and most historical structures, with the Cueto being housed inside Palacio Cueto, a grand 1906 Art Deco building with an elaborately ornate façade (from griffins to satyrs and other mythical creatures). Now being rescued from oblivion, this architectural marvel that has remained vacant since the 90s, will no doubt be one of the city's most photogenic structures once it's ready to welcome back guests.
In Cayo Santa Maria – Banyan Tree enters the picture
Entering the Cuban market for the first time ever, Asian luxury hospitality group, Banyan Tree has firmly set its sights on Cuba with not one bur four different new hotels on the pipeline, one of which just opened less than a month ago.
Bringing Banyan Tree's new "Dhawa" style-centred sub-brand to the Americas for the first time ever, the increasingly popular, yet idyllically secluded Cayo Santa Maria in Cuba was the chosen location for the debut of the hotelier's latest brand.
The new 516-room Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria, whose expected opening in July 2016 was pushed back a few months to finally open on 24th December 2016, is now ready to welcome guests to its five-star holistic luxury concept.
Becoming the first luxury hotel in Cayo Las Brujas (part of the Cayo Santa Maria archipelago) of its kind to grace this remote part of Cuba, the new property features a deluxe selection of elegant and modern rooms with private balconies, all incredibly roomy giving guests an ample space of 700-square-feet in which to lounge in. Guests can choose from eight bars and restaurants including buffet and a la carte choices as well as gourmet dining, a 24-hour snack bar and a sleek cocktail lounge. There's also a fitness centre, two adults' swimming pools, a kids' pool, Games Room and Kids Club to ensure even the littlest ones are kept well entertained.
The second Cuban property by Banyan Tree to open soon is the Angsana Cayo Santa Maria, scheduled to open 1st December 2017 if all goes according to plan. With a location adjacent to the Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria, the new resort will bring a different concept of bespoke luxury, loyal to the brand's core values of offering guests with mindful, adventurous and restorative getaways for body and soul.
Explaining their Cuba move, Banyan Tree's Senior Vice President, Des Pugson said:
"Cuba is obviously waiting to open up, and all the signs show that it will open up. Singapore, in fact, has visa-free access to Cuba, and it's reciprocal, so this is the right time."
In addition to these two, Banyan Tree is also currently working on the development of a new resort in Varadero's Cayo Buba, an offshore key adjacent to the popular Varadero resort, with all of its beach-beauty appeal and none of the crowds. Plans are also underway for a Banyan Tree property next door to the Angsana Cayo Santa Maria, but sources (Skift) tell us neither will be ready before 2019.
Last but not least, we have the resort taking the number seven spot in our list, a much-awaited new opening that will become Cayo Santa Maria's third adults-only, all-inclusive property. In partnership with Cuban hospitality group Gaviota, Melia is currently working on the new Paradisus Cayo Santa Maria, a mega-large luxury resort especially designed for couples and comprising a total of 804 rooms. It's been announced for completion in 2018.
Wedged between the Valentin Perla Blanca (another adults-only resort) and the Ocean Casa del Mar, the new Paradisus will be poised on the beautiful Perla Blanca beach, right on the tip of the Cayo Santa Maria key. Too shallow to do anything but walk for metres and metres, this crystalline lagoon is as heavenly and paradisiac as the pictures show, so I can't imagine a more romantic spot for Melia to build their latest Paradisus in Cuba.
In Cayo Guillermo – Centara brings Thai sophistication
Centara is to become the second Asian hospitality group to make waves in Cuba, and it's doing so in full decadent style. The Thailand-based hotel group is currently building the new Centara Grand Beach Resort Cayo Guillermo, poised to become the first resort in Cuba to feature overwater villas.
Expected to open in late 2017's, plans have been laid out for an ultra-luxurious resort with capacity for up to 250 guests, a number of exclusive facilities, finely appointed interiors and a selection of outstanding gourmet dining options. Other than it becoming Cuba's most luxurious beach resort ever when ready (according to experts' expectations), unfortunately, I have no more details to give you on the new Centara Grand Beach Resort Cayo Guillermo.
Its location will doubtlessly be enviable, as Cayo Guillermo is a coveted, uninhabited key in the Jardines del Rey archipelago. Only five other all-inclusive resorts are there at present, and none will be able to match Centara's bespoke luxury, at least
That takes us to one of Cayo Guillermo's newest resorts. One of the few to have opened ahead of scheduled (it was expected in 2017); the brand new Iberostar Playa Pilar in Cayo Guillermo, has had its doors opened since late 2016 and caters for couples as well as families, groups of friends and solo travellers with its varied array of facilities, activities and amenities. Beautifully facing Playa Pilar, dubbed one of Cuba's finest beaches (the finest depending who you ask), the Iberostar Playa Pilar describes itself as a five-star all-inclusive resort perfectly placed on "a natural Eden".
In Varadero – Iberostar does it again
Iberostar is one chain clearly not resting on its laurels when it comes to Cuba. Building what will become Iberostar's twelfth property in Cuba, the Spanish hotelier plans to open yet another all-inclusive resort in Varadero, where it already operates other four properties.
And it seems work on the new Iberostar Bella Vista Varadero is well under way and expected to open right on schedule during the first half of 2017, as the new hotel and resort already has its own page on Iberostar's official website and online booking has been added (although it's not yet functional). Marketed as a "Premium Gold" property, Iberostar Bella Vista Varadero will feature made-to-measure rooms for families and couples, an onsite spa, six restaurants and five bars, a nightclub, exclusive luxury extras and a dedicated MiniClub and Maxiclub for kids and teens.
Opening a year later, the Melia group, yet another Spanish chain, (number one in Cuba with over 25 different properties nationwide), will be taking over the aging Hotel Internacional in Varadero to give it a full overhaul that will bring it into the 21st century. Once a landmark property and Varadero's first ever hotel, dating all the way back to the 50s, the Internacional has been in dire need of some TLC for quite some time. Melia has taken on the challenge and hopefully we won't have to wait too long to see the results – reopening date has been set for 2018, fingers crossed no delays are announced in the meantime.
In addition to these, I earlier mentioned Banyan Tree's tapping of the Varadero market with their plans for the building of a new beach resort in Cayo Buba – a tiny offshore key adjacent to Varadero; Cuba's number one beach destination. The new Banyan Tree in Varadero is expected to come along sometime in 2019, though no official name for the property has been announced yet.
That rounds up my list of top seven hotels in Cuba opening this year and the next. Now, let's take a look at other rumoured hotels openings throughout the island, supposedly coming soon but with no opening strict deadline published as of yet.
Elsewhere in Cuba – Trinidad and Santiago
While my list of top 7 Cuba hotels opening in 2017 and 2018 only included locations in Havana and beach resorts like Varadero and the keys, that is not to say there aren't other openings elsewhere in less trodden, but still widely popular destinations around the island.
Such is the case for the Trinidad resort, where plans for at least two new hotels coming in the near future have been confirmed and are underway. The new Melia Trinidad will offer 400 rooms when ready and remains under construction while the luxury boutique Pansea Trinidad by French firm Pansea Hotels and Resorts, continues receiving its finishing touches. The latter will enjoy a prime position, just a five-minute walk from the centre of town while offering scenic beach and city views.
Beyond these two, there's a small boutique hotel being built in Plaza Mayor, opposite the Holy Trinitiy Church while CubaGolf has signed deals with undisclosed foreign companies for the building of at least three more hotels and resorts at the Chorrera-Ancon area of Trinidad, including two new 18-hole championship golf courses and even a water park!
Santiago is less lucky when it comes to receiving new hotels (which the city in desperate need of, far more so than its other colonial Cuban counterparts) yet rumour has it that a new boutique casa-style property to be named El Trianon is being developed in the Vista Alegre neighbourhood. Last year, the eastern Cuban city saw the opening of the Hotel E Imperial, to the wide acclaim of the local tourism industry and the delight of new guests.
B&B enchantment coming to Havana and Trinidad
Now, I've not included these in the list of hotels, given they are probably too small to be considered as such and are better labelled as boutique properties, B&B-type accommodation or, as Cubans would call it, "casas particulares". No opening date has been provided for these either, which means you are to take these announcements with a hopeful pinch of salt and fingers crossed.
Most of these properties comprise privately-owned houses, flats or entire block of buildings converted or redesigned as lodging spaces for tourists. Behind these are local families (sometimes aided with foreign capital be it from family members residing abroad or business partners) taking the concept of "casas particulares" to a new, more refined level.
Expected to open in December 2017, the new Malecon 663 in Havana will welcome guests to boutique accommodation directly overlooking the panoramic Malecon seawall. Housed within a colonial building, it is to incorporate a cafe and concept store as part of its overall facilities.
Also in Havana, a Cuban entrepreneur just opened its third stylish casa for rent, a penthouse flat in Havana, going under the name of Artedel Luxury Penthouse and also offering views over the Malecon.
Likewise, a project developed by a British-Cuban team in Trinidad, will see the opening of the Mansion Alameda in Trinidad, due to start welcoming guests in Spring 2017. It already has its own website at mansionalameda.com and if you're curious you can get a glimpse into what it looks like from the outside, its interiors, its leafy patio and its modern rooms that manage to retain its 1880 colonial feel thanks to their antique furniture and original French windows.
On the other hand, we have it that Caribbean Tours Ltd, the same company behind Loft Habana (which opened in 2014 and defines itself as a "unique casa particular") and the one currently developing the above-mentioned El Trianon property in Santiago de Cuba, will be opening eight to ten new boutique options over the next five years, each with a minimum of 10 rooms and in varied nationwide locations that include Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Vinales.
Is that it? Room for more?
This concludes my list of hotels, resorts and boutique properties opening in Cuba over the next year or so. However, with interest in Cuba growing by the second, the list is bound to keep growing as more and more foreign companies set sights on the island and keep adding new hotel projects to the pipeline. Just a little over a year ago, I wrote a post on the new hotels opening in Cuba over the next five years, and ever since, some like the Warwick Cayo Santa Maria have opened, while others, like the Manzana de Gomez development, are still pending and now feature in this list.
A lot will depend also on the future of U.S. – Cuba relations, as if things continue progressing where Obama left off, more and more U.S. hoteliers are likely to start building (or taking over) more hotels. It's already happened with Starwood's taking over of the Quinta Avenida hotel, now the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, and the century-old Hotel Inglaterra, the Cuban capital's oldest.
Now, it's just a waiting time to see how many of those listed here will open in time this year, which ones could suffer delays (in typical Cuban fashion) and how many new ones could be added to the pipeline between this year and the next. When it comes to hotels, Cuba definitely has room for plenty more, especially when it comes to high-end hotels and world-class quality standards. It's getting there slowly with the intervention of more foreign partners and Raul Castro's calls for efficiency and raising standards in all sectors of the economy.
Last year, there was only one Havana hotel all international celebrities stayed at (from Madonna to Beyonce, Paris Hilton, Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bundchen and Jon Bon Jovi) - the award-winning Saratoga, highly regarded as Cuba's finest in all areas. With visually striking artsy decor and sleek finishes this is one distinguished property setting the benchmark for newer hotels being built in the capital. This says a lot about the high-demand for similarly exclusive venues, and Kempinski will be tapping right into that market when the new Gran Hotel Kempinski La Habana opens. Whether many more similar ones will follow soon after is yet to see. We'll certainly keep you posted!