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What is the private sector's outlook after the easing of the US travel alert for Cuba?

The State has been 'swamped with complaints about the services and conditions of four and five star hotels,' says a tour operator.

La Habana

Although the United States Department of State decided to downgrade the level of its travel alert for citizens heading to Cuba, workers in the private sector and hotel facilities controlled by the Government have still been guarded in their expectations.

While shopping to supply his business, a restaurant in the Vedado area, Aracelis Cuellar, stated that the private sector has barely benefited from the waves of American travellers.

"They are tourists highly controlled by the Government," said Cuellar.

On August 23, Washington softened its alert for trips to Cuba from Level 3 down to Level 2 - on a scale of 4 that measures how dangerous different destinations are for Americans.

The US Government has been reducing the warning since September 2017, when it advised Americans "not to travel to Cuba" (Level 4), due to the mysterious health problems that had affected 26 diplomats and their families in Havana.

Karina runs one of the most luxurious hostels in Old Havana. He agreed that restoring the flow of American tourism will not necessarily mean that the private sector reaps great benefits.

"It will depend on several things, among them the flexibility of the restrictions that the Cuban State imposes on the private sector, whether the Ministry of Tourism's facilities overcome the hole they are in, and whether control over American tourists will persist," Karina explained

He was referring to the fact that in February of 2016 Cuba's Department of Immigration warned the renters of accommodations to foreigners about a set of measures in the face of an increase in American tourism thanks to the improvement of Washington-Havana relations under the Obama Administration.

Among other aspects, these measures stipulated that every Cuban who arrives at accommodations accompanied by a foreigner must be recorded in the guest record book, and that, in cases of American guests, the owner of the business must take the book to the Immigration authorities within 24 hours of the tourist's arrival.

An associate with Qvainside, a transportation agency for tourist trips, noted that, while the alert has been lowered, the Trump Administration maintains its ban on US tourists lodging in hotels operated by the Cuban military.

"This could benefit the private sector, but it could also put a damper on the plans to travel to Cuba of many Americans who are not informed about the potential of the self-employed on the island, and are unaware of our advertising, promotion and reservation pages," he said.

Despite private sector doubts, data from previous years suggest that the change in the US alert level may benefit their businesses.

From April 2015 to June 2017, Cubans who rented rooms or homes through the Airbnb platform made 40 million dollars.

In mid-2017 Cuba was the ninth most popular country on Airbnb for US tourists, ahead of Australia, Germany, Holland and Thailand, among other countries, according to a report published by the company, which connects homeowners with people seeking tourist accommodations, the EFE agency reported.

In 2016 more than 12% of Americans who traveled to Cuba stayed at places they found on Airbnb.

After the warning that in September of 2017 strongly advised Americans not to travel to the Island, the number of trips fell.

In January of 2018 several agencies cited by EFE said that in the last quarter of 2017 US trips to Cuba were down by around 50% compared to 2016.

"The drunk sees it one way, and the barkeeper another"

The trend continued this year. In July the US consultancy The Havana Consulting Group (THCG), a specialist in the Cuban economy, estimated that global tourism to Cuba had fallen by 5.67% in the first half of 2018. According to the consultants, in the case of Americans, 82,269 fewer tourists visited the island, for a fall rate of 23.6% compared to the same period in 2017.

THCG said that the Cuban tourism industry is going through a traumatic stage as a result of a combination of "bad practices and an accumulation of countless unresolved problems."

"The drunk sees it one way, and the barkeeper another. The question to be answered is whether the Cuban tourist industry is able to adjust to the normalization of American tourists, who usually arrive expecting to find high-level service," said a tour operator at the Ministry of Tourism.

"Complaints aboundregarding the services and conditions at four and five-star hotels throughout the country. Between that and Trump's prohibitions it is difficult to know with certainty whether the downgrade of the alert will help," she added, referring to the state sector.

In Cuba there are currently some 68,000 rooms at 366 hotels, more than half operated through 88 contracts with 20 international chains. Government projections for the year 2030 anticipate the opening of new facilities, to bring the figure up to 100,000 rooms.

"I believe that circumstances will benefit the private sector if the State recognizes that the tourism industry is badly discredited," said a worker at the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, referring to complaints from travellers about poor conditions and hotel services at state-owned companies.

"These incidents are not isolated, they are becoming more frequent, and foreign travel agencies are sending inspection commissions to Cuba, because they give the tourists exceptionally high expectations that are later not met at the hotels," added Henry, a worker at the RentaCar agency.

"Anyway, we have to view the matter with caution, because in Cuba nobody knows how things will turn out ... everything was going smoothly, and suddenly, the mystery of the 'acoustic attacks' shattered dreams," he concluded.

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