So you think travel to Cuba from the US is a slog? Try flying in from Asia.
The flight times alone are a test of endurance, stretching more than 40 hours if you are jetting off in Sydney. There is not a single direct flight to the Caribbean island from the entire Asia-Pacific region.
That might help explain why you are unlikely to spot hordes of Asian travelers whizzing down the streets of Havana in candy-colored classic cars or knocking back mojitos in the smoky jazz halls of Trinidad.
Only four Asia-Pacific nations — China, Japan, Australia and the Philippines — rank in Cuba’s annual list of major visitor sources.
Put in perspective, Canadians outnumbered Chinese visitors 30 to one, according to Cuba’s 2016 tourism statistics.
That is a missed opportunity. According to UN figures, Asia-Pacific tourists spent US$473 billion on trips abroad in 2016, accounting for 40 percent of total international tourism expenditure that year.
That type of cash could go a long way in helping Cuba meet its goal of tripling tourism revenues by 2030 as it strives to revive an economy straining under trade sanctions and US President Donald Trump’s tighter travel restrictions.
Here are three key challenges Asia’s tourists face on the journey to Cuba:
A WORLD AWAY
Distance and a lack of direct flights mean airfares to the Caribbean island can be steep. Return economy flights from Brisbane, Australia, to Havana, with at least two stopovers, range from US$2,000 to US$5,000, according to Dallas, Texas-based fare tracking firm FareCompare LP.
Meanwhile, tickets from Hong Kong with one stop can set you back as much as US$3,000 — almost double the cost of flying to nearby Cancun, Mexico.
Some unhappy trekkers have found themselves stranded at US or Mexican airport gates, where their long-haul flights might connect for onward travel to Havana.
Unlike others boarding the same plane, many Asians are unable to travel with the usual pink-and-green tourist cards commonly available at airline desks.
Passport holders from India and the Philippines join 18 nations — Syria, Iraq and Nigeria included — in needing a special passport sticker to enter Cuba.
Procuring one is not easy: If you find yourself in a place without a Cuban consulate, such as Manila, it requires an additional trip to a neighboring hub to apply for the sticker in person.
And if that neighboring hub is Beijing, you might even need to apply for a visa to China to get your visa to Cuba.
A further caveat: If your flight is via the US, you must also get a permit from a US-based consulate or airline.
Agencies, such as California-based Cuba Travel Services, can handle visas by mail, although processing times run up to 30 days — during which time the agency will keep your passport in hand.
LACK OF MARKETING
“A lot of travel agencies aren’t focusing on the Asian market,” said Marla Recio Carbajal, the Cuban founder of luxury travel specialist Havana Reverie, which has been hosting corporate retreats, galas, private dinners, and fashion shows for clients since 2016.
Due to their proximity, the Cuban government has focused on luring tourists from Canada, Latin America or Europe with cruise tours and package stays at beach resorts.
“But because more Asians are coming, I think tour operators realize there is big potential there,” she said.
Of the 50 to 60 events Carbajal’s company hosts a year, only one has involved an Asian group, which flew in for a cigar festival.
Havana Reverie plans to tap the Asian market with Chinese and Japanese-language versions of her Web site.
“I do think [Cuba has] missed the Asian market,” Cuba Educational Travel president Collin Laverty said.
“It’s gotten better, but not long ago it was a challenge to book a hotel room in Cuba, something that can be off-putting to someone considering flying across the world to visit,” he said.
Still, there is no shortage of Cuban attractions to entice those who live thousands of kilometers away.
There is no longer a shortage of great places to stay, either.
Relatively new on the scene is Kempinski Hotels SA’s 246-room Gran Hotel Manzana in the heart of Havana — the city’s standard-bearer for luxury — while construction on Spanish hotel group Iberostar’s five-star property, Grand Packard, is under way.
Golf courses and resorts in the country’s wild agricultural west have also been planned.
Do not wait until they open to plan your trip. As it stands, there is a rising crop of trendy restaurants, such as tapas restaurant Lamparilla 361 in Havana, plus plenty of charming bed-and-breakfasts to make the 40-hour trip worth it, all on their own.
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