Considered a resounding success by local media, FITCuba 2018 ended its 38th edition with a big public party after having gathered and engaged 3,319 global travel industry representatives from 62 countries, with fruitful negotiations taking place, new agreements signed and several presentations introducing potential investors and partners to some of the island´s emerging destinations. The fair’s events were covered by some 178 worldwide journalists, some of which were quick to announce what tourists could look forward to experiencing on a Cuba holiday over the coming months.
A bit of historical background - a ground-breaking moment in Cuban history
As it happens, the fair followed yet another big event in the island - the election of the first Cuban president in over 50 years to not be part of the Castro clan and who is in no way related to the original leaders of the revolution. Miguel Diaz-Canel, the newly announced president, belongs to another generation, was born after the triumph of Castro´s Revolution and started building up his political career in his native town after graduating as an electronics engineer at the Universidad Central de Las Villas. Coincidentally, (or perhaps incidentally) the new Cuban president is from Villa Clara, a province he worked hard to represent and improve during his many years in office as First Secretary of the Provincial Party Committee of Villa Clara, the equivalent of a regional governor.
Perhaps in a nod to his beloved native town (he is admired there for his humility and hard work), the government´s tourism authorities turned their eyes to Villa Clara. But most likely, it was a combination of that and the fact that the theme of this year´s fair was “Sun and Beach”, with Villa Clara´s offshore key of Cayo Santa Maria having experienced a recent spike in visitor numbers over the last few years.
Banking on this growth and spurred by a need to revive this central province´s rich historical and cultural values as well as connect these attractions to the ample recreational sun and sea options in its vicinity, Villa Clara is experiencing a rebirth, with the renovation of grand colonial buildings and the development of a long-forgotten coastal town, which could soon become a cruise stop and have its own marina. All this and more, was revealed during FITCuba 2018. Keep reading to find out more.
The Fair - celebrating Villa Clara
Over the course of four days, Villa Clara dressed to impress and host for the first time Cuba’s biggest annual tourism fair. From 2nd to 5th May, the central Cuban province welcomed travel industry representatives from the world over. A destination that has received little attention from tourism authorities over the years (with the only exception of Cayo Santa Maria) the eyes are finally being turned to this part of the island and the province stole the limelight for the duration of the fair, showcasing its unique assets and fantastic potential.
Building up of the fair, in the months that preceded it, Villa Clara had been hard at work sprucing up its towns, municipalities, streets and some of its buildings, especially the ones with historical value. The main areas to benefit from the province-wide renovations were Sagua La Grande, Remedios, Caibarien and Isabela de la Sagua, the latter of which is still in the early stages of a complete makeover (and a much-needed one at that as for decades this pretty coastal town has lay abandoned, and most recently it was torn to bits after the savage passing of Irma).
The main goal of this year’s fair was to relaunch the increasingly popular enclave of Cayo Santa Maria, and alongside it, introduce the attendants to other attractive areas in the region which most tourists overlooked and which had, so far, lacked tourism infrastructure and promotion. Beyond the Che mausoleum in Santa Clara and the beach resorts of Cayo Santa Maria, few tourists ventured into Villa Clara´s pretty colonial towns like Remedios (the province´s oldest settlement) and Sagua La Grande, a once prosperous city that became one of the first to have electricity in the country and whose neoclassical buildings (now refurbished) stand out for their exquisite beauty.
During the fair, attendants toured around a handful of Villa Clara municipalities, the majority of which had recently received or were still in the process of receiving a major makeover to increase its touristic appeal. Here, we take a look at the places the various international delegations toured and what they learnt about the major investments being poured into the development of Villa Clara to make it shine like never before and attract larger visitor numbers.
Investing in Villa Clara for a brighter future
In the past, few tourists have ventured into Villa Clara, with the exception of those who stop over for a day visit to the, and those that head to Caibarien to connect to the blissful isle of Cayo Santa Maria. This could soon change as, while Cuba is keen to maintain the focus on Villa Clara´s sun and beach appeal, it also wants to shift some of the attention to other nearby attractions and cities to give tourists more options of things to do and sights to see in the province, providing an overall more enriching, well-rounded experience. Works are already underway and most well into its advanced stages (or already completed) to realise the region´s full potential. The central cities and towns that Cuban tourism authorities wanted to put firmly on the map for travellers were the following.
The Rebirth of Sagua La Grande
The biggest destination to be launched in the fair and the newest introduction, the city of Sagua La Grande was given special attention during this year’s FITCuba edition, with participants given a full tour around its newly refurbished buildings and renovated infrastructure on 4th May. After some serious glamming up, Sagua La Grande is almost ready to welcome discerning tourists and dazzle them with its grand neoclassical beauties, one of which you can actually stay at and lap up the period luxury.
Visitors were able to inspect the renewed city in all its splendour and were shown around the building site of the renewed Palacio Arenas, a former palatial residence and magnificent Art Nouveau property that will soon reopen its doors as a luxury boutique hotel. Considered one of seven architectural wonders of Villa Clara, the results of its renovations are being awaited with bated breath. But this isn´t the only revived property to benefit from the city´s makeover. The legendary Gran Hotel Sagua, found right at the city´s historic centre was officially relaunched on 4th May when its doors reopened and FITCuba guests had the privilege of being the first to see the result of the major refurbishment works.
Gran Hotel Sagua has received a costly renovation and re-branding after being taken under the umbrella of E Hotels (Hoteles Encanto). The eclectic four-story edification, which dates back to 1925 (and which once hosted celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt and Federico Garcia Lorca) will offer a total of 84 guest rooms with premium views over the city. Its interiors have been fully upgraded while in-keeping with original period features and leaving intact its most attractive assets. It once was considered the city’s most luxurious hotel and the most modern of the times. Now, it shines again with renewed splendour and boasts a restaurant, bar, pool, gym, sweet shop and meeting room. It’s an authentic beauty that deserves a good snapping session. The results of its renovation are nothing short of outstanding, especially if you look at the before and after pictures (the building was in a dire, crumbling state).
Elsewhere in Sagua La Grande, works are kicking off to refurbish El Triunfo bridge, one of the city’s most iconic symbols while efforts are being poured in the improvement of the main boulevard, with the renovation of its famous Coppelia ice cream parlour, which will now face a line of newly-sprung restaurants, bars and clubs. Repairs are also being carried out at the local Sagua cinema and Alcazar theatre, while Parque Central’s green areas, pavements and benches are receiving attention with the addition of new lights. Also undergoing refurbishment works are the Cubita coffee store and local cigar shop while the old Spanish Casino (Casino Espanol) is in the process of being redeveloped alongside other nearby facilities. There’s also the ongoing construction of La Jungla bar and the Gran Rey cafe so that travellers won’t have a shortage of quality dining and drinking venues. Sagua La Grande will no doubt Cuba’s destination of the year, even more so when all projects are finished in a few month’s time.
Villa Clara’s Ministry of Tourism representative, Regla Dayamy Armenteros Mesa also revealed that as part of the major overhaul, part of the investment funds were dedicated to renewing the adjacent coastal town of Isabela de Sagua, to which we turn our attention next.
The Revival of a ghost town
Isabela de Sagua is a small coastal town next to Sagua La Grande. It’s an extremely unique place for the way its wooden houses were built on stilts over the sea (the few that remain standing) which earned it the nickname of “Cuba’s Venice”. Perhaps the most quirky and picturesque place of all in Villa Clara, years of weather-battering and hurricane bashing had all but destroyed it and it stood on the verge of complete collapse for years. The ruins of a discoloured town remained like the vestiges of a bygone era. Thankfully, the recent Villa Clara renaissance and major investment for the province’s development seems to be having a ripple effect on this charming, sleeping fishermen’s town and its port will once again welcome large vessels as it once did, though instead of trade ones exporting sugar, they will carry tourists.
According to Armenteros Mesa, there is a project to build a marina in Isabela Sabela, a nautical base that will facilitate tourist trips to Cayo Esquivel, a virginal key home to amazing, untouched beaches and a place were a new restaurant was just built and where future luxury hotels will be built, as announced by Tourism Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz. With Isabela being the direct link to the new luxury island, it stands to reason the town’s ruins and traditional wooden houses will start being refurbished soon, though no official announcements were made in this regard. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Adding to Remedios´ intrinsic charm
Of all the up and coming destinations in Villa Clara presented to tourism partners during FITCuba 2018, Remedios was perhaps the best kept secret from mainstream holidaymakers and the most known to backpacking, off-the-beaten-path travellers lured to its famous Parrandas around Christmas time, during which the entire town splits in two to compete and see which team makes the loudest noise, the most spectacular fireworks and the most ornate floats. It’s an incredible tradition that’s been kept alive for centuries and an amazing cultural experience in a little-trodden part of Cuba.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that the government is finally investing in Remedios’ tourism potential, although no massive developments are in place or in the pipeline (and thank god for that, there’s no need for transformation here as this pretty colonial town is well-preserved as it is). As Villa Clara’s oldest settlement, there’s plenty of original enchantment and traditions to woo travellers.
On the morning of the fair’s last day, participants were taken on a steam train ride from the municipality of Caibarien (more on this one below) to Remedios, where they were taken on a tour around its historic colonial centre to view landmarks such as the main church (Parroquia Mayor San Juan Bautista) and the Museo de Parrandas, before stopping for the official inauguration ceremony of the new Hotel E Casa Bauza, a quaint boutique property built on a former colonial mansion and offering just 24 guest rooms. On 5th May it opened its doors for the first time to fair attendants.
With eight guest rooms, the similarly small but elegant new Hotel Leyenda in Remedios isn’t finished yet, but fair visitors were shown around its building site. According to Armenteros, these new rooms will add to Remedios’ total of 68 hotel rooms, and will offer an alternative to the 93 casas particulares already offering a homestay type lodging option in the city. On his part, Cubanacan representative in Villa Clara, Samuel Lozano revealed that countries like the UK, Germany, Italy and France accounted for the main visitors to this legendary little town.
Caibarien, Camajuani and the keys - Developing Cayo Ensenachos
Prior to stopping in Remedios, the fair’s entire committee kick-started their sightseeing journey in Caibarien, where they inspected the many works being carried out (non-hotel related) in a small municipality dubbed “La Villa Blanca” (The White Town) for its miles of white sand beaches and its direct access to Villa Clara’s offshore keys of Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Ensenachos which you can get after traversing the 48-km causeway built over the sea.
There’s not much to see in Caibarien per se, beyond the main square and the statue of the giant crab that stands as an emblem of this fishing town, but there is one attractions that stands out as highly popular and that FITCuba visitors were taken to - the Museo de la Agroindustria Azucarera (Museum of the Sugar Industry) as well as to inspect the renewed facilities and the works being carried out to improve its infrastructure.
Camajuani, the small municipality next door to Caibarien is similarly receiving attention in the form of non-hotel related refurbishments. It has a lovely avenue (Avenida Prado) where beautiful colonial buildings can be observed on either side. Both Camajuani and Caibarien join Remedios in the annual celebration of the famous Parrandas and its carnival-like festivities, so are ideal for visiting during that time of year.
Santa Clara - the flourishing capital
It would be unforgivable to invest in Cuba’s central province and leave out its capital of Santa Clara home to Villa Clara’s most famous cultural attraction, the Che Guevara mausoleum. So, it stands to reason that FITCuba would make a stop here to showcase its tourism potential.
To that end, the new Hotel Floreale is currently in advanced stages of constructions, followed by the also new Hotel Florida, while the centric Hotel Central facing Parque Vidal was recently remodelled and reopened in an official ceremony.
Furthermore, perhaps the biggest news for Santa Clara and one of FITCuba 2018’s most significant achievements was the signing of an agreement to establish a direct flight route from Santa Clara to European cities with Group FTI from Germany, which will significantly increase the number of visitors to the city.
The main announcements for Cuba´s tourism future
The biggest delegations attending FITCuba 2018 came from Spain, Mexico, the U.S. and the UK and upon its conclusion last 5th May the fair came to a fruitful end. Not only because it had managed to successfully promote Villa Clara as an emerging destination but also because it had signed several management deals with foreign partners in the process, securing an ongoing investment in the region.
After four days of tours, presentations and intense negotiations, the island’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz hailed the fair a success that exceeded all expectations, congratulating Villa Clara for its hard work over the last few months in the build up to the fair’s celebration.
Marrero highlighted, among the many deals signed, the agreement for the managing of Cuba hotels by German Group FTI, as well as the hiring of aircraft to improve domestic connections and the launch of a new direct route linking several European cities to Santa Clara with daily flights starting next winter season.
He also revealed the signing of a letter of intent between Louvre Hotels in France and Cuba’s Cubanacan for the administration of all the hotels that the government-owned hotel group has in Sagua La Grande, a news that will contribute to the promotion of tourism in said enclave.
Furthermore, Spanish hotel group Iberostar signed a contract with Gaviota for the management of the new Hotel Packard in Havana, which will open its doors this August.
Villa Clara’s potential for events and health tourism was also explored while a public fair in Santa Clara (Feria de Gran Publico) hosted an exhibition by local providers.
During the fair it was revealed that Cuba’s tourism authorities had a total of 610 projects in the pipeline, which includes not just hotel rooms but also 51 recreational facilities and 30 real estate projects related to tourism.
In Marrero’s words:
“We have development programmes that go as far as 2030, which include 610 projects in tourist hotspots declared “Special Economic Zones. [Of these] 332 are lodging projects, 51 are recreational, 30 are real estate developments associated with tourism, 50 are related to nature tourism, 55 are camping sites, 22 are recreational nautical facilities and 70 are supporting activities”.
The fair also hosted special galas and parties to celebrate Iberostar’s 25th anniversary and a brand new product unrelated to Villa Clara was launched - Sports Climbing in Vinales, an increasingly popular activity among expert climbers which had not been previously offered to average tourists.
Also, as part of the part’s speeches, Cuba reinforced its status as one of the safest countries in the world, as recognised by FITUR, Spain’s International Tourism Fair held last March. To discredit Washington’s ludicrous claim of Cuba being a potentially unsafe destination for tourists following the mysterious sonic attacks on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana, the island’s tourism minister wanted to assure visitors this was no more than a dirty political tactic by Trump’s administration to deter U.S. visitors from visiting the country seeking to reverse Obama’s rapprochement strategy, and there wasn’t a real threat or dangers to tourists and holidaymakers.
Just for travellers
Also during FITCuba 2018 the launch of a new travel handy tool for travellers to Cuba was announced as the official launch of CubaMaps took place, a trio of websites and a mobile app giving visitors an updated and fully interactive map of Cuba, highlighting points of interests as well as giving them estimates of how much time it takes to travel from one place to the next using the different modes of transport available, according to the traveller’s departure point. A revolutionary free tool without precedent in the island and which traveller can download to their phone ahead of their Cuba holidays via the Google Play Store. The only limitation? It’s for Android mobile phones only, which mean iPhone users high feel left out (at least for now).
FITCuba 2018 - Going out with a big bang
The festivities concluded with a very public street party at Santa Clara’s Parque Vidal, with legendary Cuban salsa band Los Van Van headlining a big concert. On prior nights the fair had welcomed to the stage other Cuban performers, from Isaac Delgado (who famously did a private concert for Madonna during the celebration of her 58th birthday in Cuba) to Descemer Bueno, Buena Fe and David Blanco.
FITCuba 2018 relaunched Villa Clara as a desirable, upgraded destination offering the perfect combination of sun and beach with a generous added dose of history and culture. Despite most of the fair being hosted in Cayo Santa Maria’s Sercotel Experience, a brand new five-star luxury hotel that was opened during the fair, the full remodelling of Sagua La Grande was the biggest revelation, with major investments poured into the rehabilitation of historic centre, the creation of two new restaurants, two bars, one coffee shop, two hotels and more .
What about FITCUBA 2019?
During this year’s closing ceremony, Cuba’s tourism minister handed the Spanish Ambassador in Cuba, Juan Jose Buitrago de Benito, with the certificate that appointed Spain as the invited guest of honour at next year’s FITCUBA 2019 which will be celebrated in Havana to coincide with the city’s 500th anniversary and whose main theme will be incentive events.