Tourists pose for a selfie photograph on a bridge over the Thu Bon River in the old town of Hoi An, Quảng Nam Province, Vietnam. (Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg)

Why Cuba’s Missing Out on Asia’s Big-Spending Tourists

(Bloomberg) -- So you think travel to Cuba from the U.S. is a slog? Try flying in from Asia.

The flight times alone are a test of endurance, stretching over 40 hours if you’re jetting off in Sydney. In fact there’s not a single direct flight to the Caribbean island from the entire Asia-Pacific region. 

That may help explain why you’re 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’s a missed opportunity. According to UN figures, Asia-Pacific tourists spent $473 billion on trips abroad that year, accounting for 40 percent of total international tourism expenditure in 2016. 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 U.S. President Donald Trump’s tighter travel restrictions.

Why Cuba’s Missing Out on Asia’s Big-Spending Tourists

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 $2,000 to $5,000, according to Dallas-based fare tracking firm FareCompare. Meanwhile, tickets from Hong Kong with one stop can set you back as much as $3,000—almost double the cost of flying to nearby Cancun, Mexico.

Why Cuba’s Missing Out on Asia’s Big-Spending Tourists

Visa Issues

Some unhappy trekkers have found themselves stranded at U.S. 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 isn’t 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) in order to get your visa (to Cuba). 

A further caveat: If your flight is via the U.S., you must also get a permit from a U.S.-based consulate or airline. Agencies such as California-based Cuba Travel Services can handle visas by mail, though processing times run up to 30 days—during which time the agency will keep your passport in hand.

Why Cuba’s Missing Out on Asia’s Big-Spending Tourists

Lack of Marketing

“A lot of travel agencies aren’t focusing on the Asian market,” says 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, Cuba’s 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 says.

Of the 50 to 60 events Carbajal’s company hosts a year, only one has involved an Asian group, which flew in for a cigar festival. Havana Reverie plans to tap the Asian market with Chinese- and Japanese-language versions of her website.

“I do think [Cuba has] missed the Asian market,” says Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel. “It’s gotten better, but not long ago it was a challenge to book a hotel room in Cuba, something that can be off-putting to someone considering flying across the world to visit.”

Why Cuba’s Missing Out on Asia’s Big-Spending Tourists

Still, there’s no shortage of Cuban attractions to entice those who live thousands of miles away. There’s no longer a shortage of great places to stay, either.

Relatively new on the scene is Kempinski Hotels’ 246-room Gran Hotel Manzana in the heart of Havana—the city’s standard bearer for luxury—while construction on Spanish hotel group Iberostar’s own five-star property, Grand Packard, is underway. Golf courses and resorts in the country’s wild agricultural west have also been planned. Don’t wait until they open to plan your trip. As it stands, there’s a rising crop of trendy restaurants, such as tapas restaurant Lamparilla 361 in Havana, plus plenty of charming bed-and-breakfasts to make the 40-hour trip worth it, all on their own.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.