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'Cuba's tourism model is showing signs of fatigue'

José María Cubillo, Professor of International Marketing and a branding expert at the Universidad CEU San Pablo (Spain) analyzes the situation on the island and the reputational damage it may be suffering.

José María Cubillo, Professor of International Marketing and an expert in branding.
José María Cubillo, Professor of International Marketing and an expert in branding. Universidad CEU San Pablo

In 2023 several specialized consultants have pointed to the dire damage done to Cuba as a tourism product, so severe that the island is now bringing up the rear  as a Caribbean destination in the post-pandemic era.

José María Cubillo, Professor of International Marketing and a branding expert at the Universidad CEU San Pablo, in Spain, spoke to DIARIO DE CUBA about these realities.

In your opinion, what is the main cause of the downturn in tourism in Cuba?

When such a situation occurs, in general, there is not a single factor. Rather, it is often due to the simultaneous concurrence, at a given time, of a set of factors that coalesce and lead to a situation of imbalance. Therefore, it is advisable not to carry out a simplistic analysis or look for a single reason.

Notwithstanding the above, what the data indicates is that Cuba's tourism model seems to be showing signs of fatigue. In Marketing we say that you always have to change something so that nothing changes. If you don't change anything in 20 years, you can't expect different results. It is important to evolve and, therefore, innovate.

Cuba is a great country with a natural, cultural, social and human appeal that is very attractive and exotic in Western culture; in particular, in European culture. This appeal forms the basis of the tourism product. This is a necessary but insufficient factor.

For people to keep going, it is important to have a diversified, well-thought-out and planned set of offerings. It is very important to have facilities and infrastructures that guarantee excellent service. Tourists have become very demanding, requiring high levels of service.

I don't think "fun in the sun" tourism is running out of steam. People are always going to be looking for this. What is generating the fatigue is that there is nothing else. If we look, for example, at the Canary Islands [Spain], we see that all the offerings there are already booked for Christmas, which is high season there.

To be competitive in the current global context, it is very important to feature complementary tourism offerings, with fun in the sun being just one part. It must be much richer.

The Cuban regime has alleged that US sanctions, which affect travel by Americans, benefit other Caribbean destinations, such as the Dominican Republic and Cancun. What role do the sanctions play in this scenario?

This aspect alone does not explain the current situation, since this is not something recent, but rather a situation with a long history, such that it can't account for the current situation.

There are no sanctions placed by Canada, but tourism from there does not seem to have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels...

This suggests that it is necessary to look for different reasons.

Something similar is the case with Europe, especially Spain, as Iberia now only has three weekly flights, and Iberojet canceled its operations in Havana and Santiago de Cuba... What is going on with Spain?

Spain and Cuba are  sister countries with common roots and a culture that emanates from the same source. Therefore, we have a very intimate and natural relationship, and will continue to do so. However, it is true that it seems that in recent years there has been a kind of distancing between the two countries, an estrangement.

Before it was very common to talk and hear about Cuba, all the time, almost constantly. But in recent years there is less talk about it, it is less prominent, and that significantly influenced its brand memory and the tourist's purchase intentions.

Cuba as a brand has great power, with a set of attributes that make it unique, and certainly very special, but if you're not present in the consumer's mind —in this case, the tourist's— he will not consider you when making his decisions for his next vacation. In this regard we can state that the "Cuba brand" has lost visibility and prominence in Spain in recent years.

Various consultants say that the trend is changing and tourists are increasingly looking for experiences and urban tourism... How does this affect Cuba, in the midst of its serious economic crisis?

I don't think "fun in the sun" tourism is being exhausted. What is happening is that the way we see the world is changing. People's behavior is changing, their scales of values, their perceptions and, consequently, also what they  demand from tourism.

Today, multi-experience tourism is increasingly sought after. Travellers don't want just a single experience on their trips, but rather a complete set of offerings in which they can enjoy a wide range of experiences on the same trip. This is where

Experiential Marketing comes to the fore, which does not consist of spending a lot of money, but rather being able to make the tourist think and feel differently.

Along these lines, it is necessary to be able to think and to design complete tourist packages featuring 360 experiences, allowing tourists to enjoy full and excellent experiences from the moment they arrive until they leave. Offering them he same old thing will no longer do.

Countries must modernize their offerings, facilities, and infrastructures; update their offerings so that they remain attractive;  and, of course, see to quality as one of the natural cornerstones of tourism. The diamond must be polished.

Russian tourism to Cuba is up by more than 200%. Havana stresses this, but is this a solid solution?

In International Marketing we always say that markets must be diversified, and excessive dependence must be avoided. This is a basic rule. Relying on one market means taking a risk, as you are hitching your success to the economic health of the country or countries you depend on. Therefore, it is important to reduce dependence, diversify the markets from which you welcome tourists, and make sure that your "country brand" is strong in each of them.

In the long run, is there reputational damage?

Globally, there is a moment of geopolitical tension, with two large platforms that are once again generating friction and colliding with each other. Russia, today, in the global context, has saddled itself with a negative image and a reputation for  problems after having invaded a peaceful neighboring country. This has consequences for Russia's reputation and its business with other countries. Thus, if your main ally, or one of your main allies, is Russia, "cobranding" with this country could have negative fallout for your own reputation if you are not able to clearly distance yourself from it.

From the specific point of view of tourism, if the quality of the tourism services is unsatisfactory, if the service is not excellent, and this situation generates bad customer experiences, and these are widespread, it is very likely that, in the long run, if the problem is not corrected, it will end up doing reputational damage to the country.

There are other dictatorships that have been successful in terms of tourism. Is this factor a permanent problem?

Spain was able to develop a very strong and powerful tourism industry, which came about and was promoted in an undemocratic institutional framework, although it is true that the real expansion and development of tourism came with democracy and an increase in the country's institutional quality.

It is more contingent on institutional quality and the quality of public management, in this case, than to any other issue. Institutional quality enhances economic activity and, therefore, business and tourism activity. It is essential that there be strong management of tourism activity; that it be adequate, and that there be no brakes, no obstacles to it beyond those strictly necessary.

It is important to keep in mind that Cuba must modernize in every way. Cuba must undertake a very important innovation process to become a competitive tourism destination and generate a new tourist cycle in the country. And it must place the quality of tourist services and the customer experience at the center of this process.

Today the competitive advantage does not only come from the fact that a territory has certain tourism assets. It is much more complex. In this process the country as a brand, its set of attributes, and how communication is managed, plays a decisive role.
Today countries cannot compete on the basis of just a single attribute. The characteristic that sets you apart, that makes you different, must be complemented by a set of expected and necessary traits, which must be in balance. And, from there, the characteristic that makes you unique shines through.

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