Sun, Aug 26, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Why Cuba is missing out on Asia’s big-spending tourists

A lack of promotions targeting travelers in the Asia-Pacific, combined with costly flights and possible visa issues, leave the island out of reach for many people in the region

By Kristine Servando  /  Bloomberg

A classic car drives past an art installation for the carnival of Havana on Friday last week.

Photo: EPA

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.

VISA ISSUES

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.

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