The historic Copacabana hotel, opened in 1955 and reopened in 1992 in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar, has never changed so much in such a short time: from offering mojitos to carefree tourists by the pool to accommodating the last stragglers and now, empty, selling takeaway.
“In Cuba the impossible is achieved. We are prepared to open and close hotels in a few hours,” says Javier Fernández, CEO in Cuba of Be Live Hotels, a Spanish company belonging to the Globalia group that since 2006 has managed and administered hotels owned by the Cuban state.
Even without generating a health crisis, in Cuba the coronavirus has hit hard against Spanish businessmen, who mostly operate in the paralyzed tourism sector. With giants like Meliá and Iberostar at the forefront, Spanish firms monopolize seven out of every ten hotel beds on an island that receives more than four million tourists every year.
THE PANDEMIC, AN OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE
Be Live operates the Copacabana and eight other establishments between Havana, Varadero and Cayo Santa María (east of the capital) with 2,793 rooms.
All of them have been left empty after the tourist exodus and the closure of borders on the island in early April, but this does not mean that the hotels remain inactive.
In the Copacabana, for example, the chefs, store clerks and janitors are busier than ever because they now sell take-out food like other emblematic hotels in the city, such as the Hotel Nacional or the Meliá Habana.
“It is about taking advantage of perishable products in our hotels and warehouses: they are put on sale in the market with very reasonable, affordable prices. The main objective is not to earn money, it is to keep employees and offer food to the population” , explains Fernández.
In addition, in March and April the Copacabana rooms were filled for weeks with the last tourists who had been stranded when their flights back to Europe, the United States or Canada were canceled.
Now, without visitors, the important thing for tourism entrepreneurs is not to stand still: “we are taking advantage to improve facilities, accelerate maintenance and improvements,” says the director of Be Live, convinced that the reopening of hotels in Cuba will come accompanied by “a higher standard and level of quality than they had when closed.”
FIRST OBJECTIVE: LOCAL TOURISM
But when will tourism on the island be reactivated? Xulio Fontecha, president of the Association of Spanish Entrepreneurs in Cuba (AEEC), is optimistic, since the coronavirus in Cuba seems to be under control with less than 15 cases a day on average in the last week.
“The de-escalation seems close to beginning. This is going to imply that some hotel and tourist facility is opening little by little and, logically, in the first place for local tourism,” he tells Efe.
The Galician businessman considers that “having controlled this pandemic so well can be a very positive point for the recovery of tourism” in Cuba, since once the virus is eradicated it could give it a competitive advantage over other destinations where cases continue to occur.
In any case, there is a strong cause for concern for the approximately 300 Spanish businessmen in Cuba: the impact of the pandemic on the precarious Cuban economy.
BAD TIME TO COLLECT DEBT
“This crisis has not caught us at the worst time, but certainly at a bad time, because there is still a tense situation from the financial point of view of the country and companies that have collection problems,” says Fontecha.
For more than two years, Cuba owes approximately 300 million euros to the Spanish companies that operate on the island, which especially affects small entrepreneurs.
The possibility of collecting this debt is moving away with the COVID-19 pandemic, which could deal a devastating blow to the Cuban economy, already precarious in itself and weakened by the tightening of the commercial and financial embargo by the administration of the President. American Donald Trump.
The crisis, in fact, is already palpable in the Caribbean country, where basic products such as detergent, eggs and chicken have been scarce in recent weeks as queues have grown in front of markets and shops.
This situation, however, does not affect all Spanish companies equally. The AEEC president explains that “in specific sectors such as food or the medical-pharmacist they are seeing a situation of relief, because they are making supplies and collecting them.”
For now, the coronavirus has taken its toll on trade between Spain and Cuba, which fell almost a third in year-on-year terms to 65.32 million euros in March, according to data published this week by the Spanish Commercial Office in Havana.
What there is no doubt, according to Fontecha, is that difficult times are ahead for Spanish businessmen, both in Cuba and in the rest of the world. “The business world always has a certain amount of risk, but nobody was prepared for this,” he says.