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SUNWING LOVES CUBA: And it’s not a one sided affair

After a two year pandemic enforced hiatus, Sunwing recently celebrated its first in-person event in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan. They dubbed it, “Sunwing Loves Cuba” and proved it with a big announcement. Sunwing Travel Group’s hotel management company will take over all 11 hotels on Cayo Largo, growing its portfolio in Cuba from 22 to 33 properties and making Blue Diamond Resorts the second largest hotel chain in Cuba with over 9,000 rooms in total.

Prior to the event Travel Industry Today had an opportunity to talk with Blue Diamond Resorts’ Managing Director, Cuba, Mohamad Fawzi, and Eric Rodriguez, Executive Vice President, Strategic Partnerships for Sunwing Travel Group.

Eric Rodriguez and Mohamad Fawzi

“Cuba is a very important destination for us and we’ve grown phenomenally over the years,” said Rodriguez. “This, in addition to the growth of Blue Diamond Resorts, has given us a privileged position with the (Cuban) government in allowing us to take over Cayo Largo managing all the hotels on the island.”

This is a first – something that has never previously happened in Cuba – a single company, Blue Diamond Resorts, managing all the hotels in a destination. Both Rodriguez and Fawzi stressed the importance of that, including the key fact that the Sunwing Travel Group, has obtained an exclusive import license allowing the company to control what’s coming into the destination thereby making it possible for Canadians, especially families, to enjoy some of the same basic staples they would get at home.

“We’re able to bring in the things that don’t necessarily increase costs, but that Canadians want. Like Heinz ketchup, or mustard, or maple syrup, or peanut butter. Just simple things.” Said Rodriguez, noting that even on holiday people like to have access to familiar items. When I questioned why Canadians were not trying local food, both men agreed that while some adults will occasionally try the local cuisine, families with kids aren’t as adaptable.

In fact, Rodriguez remembers visiting Cuba with his kids. “My son loved ketchup. He put ketchup on everything. And we would go to Costco, get the tub, and we’d put it in the luggage. And we’d bring that and Nutella. And then he was happy.”

More seriously, when it comes to Cuba, Sunwing has delivered, in terms of hotel management, as the tour company, and the Group as a whole. It was also one of the first companies to restart again when Cuba opened up after the pandemic.

Sunwing also has excellent relationships with government officials including the ex-Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz, who is now Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism Juan Carlos García.

Fawzi stresses that this is a unique time in Cuba. The country is very sensitized to tourism and they are open to finding solutions for various issues. The import license granted Sunwing being just one demonstration of that. Others include improving WiFi access and even easing the visa card process – looking to switch it from an actual card that tour operators must pre-purchase for passengers, to an easy to use App.

Cayo Largo

Cuba has always been an important destination for Sunwing, both as a hotel management operation and also as a tour company. It was one of the first companies to resume flights after the pandemic when Cuba opened up, says Rodriguez, and the management of all Cayo Largo hotels for a long term 10-year contract is a unique opportunity that Cuba has provided The Sunwing Travel Group.

As for the pandemic, Fawzi told us, it was hard of course like everywhere else and for a short time the country was closed. During that period many hotels naturally turned to local tourism to fill their rooms, though as the country opened up there’s less dependence on the domestic market.

Cuba has come through really well. Tourism in general is picking up, Europeans are coming back, as are visitors from Mexico, but Canadians are leading the return.

When in Toronto recently, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism Juan Carlos García confirmed the importance of Canadian tourism when he told the industry and media that Canada has returned to its place as the leading source market for tourism to Cuba. Changes in the US rules regarding travel to Cuba he said, caused US visitation to fluctuate wildly in recent years and has reminded Cuba who its friends are.

“We have always had a phase where they came, they took over and they left. It’s time to learn our lessons and remain faithful to the countries that have stayed with us, like Canada and Europe.”

Cayo Largo

First published at Travel Industry Today

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