First US-brand hotel hits Cuba

The embargo remains, but US-Cuban relations are definitely opening up...

First US-brand hotel hits Cuba

A vintage car passes in front of the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Havana, Tuesday, June 28, 2016. Picture by: Ramon Espinosa / AP/Press Association Images

Stroll through the upmarket Havana neighbourhood of Miramar this week, close to the Caribbean seafront, and you might see an unusual new sign outside a military-owned establishment.

Oh, and the American flag.

The Gaviota 5th Avenue Hotel has now been christened "Four Points by Sheraton" as it becomes the first in Cuba to run under a US brand since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

It is one of two hotels that Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide has agreed to manage as restrictions on trade and investment between the Caribbean island and the United States of America start to fall away.

With the official inauguration taking place yesterday, Nancy Sabrabia, PR manager for the hotel, told Reuters:

"This is a historic moment."

She called the new Four Points by Sheraton "a symbol of brotherhood and collaboration."

Starwood will also take over operations of the state-owned Gran Caribe Inglaterra Hotel under its Luxury Collection brand from August 31st.

The multi-million dollar deal was struck in March, to take advantage of a booming Cuban tourism industry.

Tourism boom

While the official embargo – deemed a failure by US President Barack Obama –  is still in place, the Obama administration has made significant strides towards opening things up, and its paying dividends in Havana.

In 2015, Cuba saw a 17% increase in international visitors with the inflow of Americans alone rising by 77% to 161,000.

In the first four months of 2016, Cuba welcomed a total of 1.5 million tourists, up 13.5% on 2015.

Florida's Stonegate Bank has started issuing credit cards for use in Cuba, and from this week they can be used to withdraw cash in the country.

Many restrictions remain in place, however, with the US Congress required to take action to end the embargo.

During his historic trip to Havana in March, Obama called for just that.

Speaking to a select audience of 1,000 in Havana's Grand Theatre, he reaffirmed this belief, whilst noting that internal changes were also required for the country to prosper.

Obama said: "It is time to lift the embargo, but even if we lifted it tomorrow, Cubans would not realise their potential without more freedom to open a business."

He argued, as Cuban leader Raúl Castro looked on, that the government should not feel threatened by the US.

"Many suggested that I came here to Cuba to tear something down, but I am appealing to the young people to lift something up...We have a clear example of what the Cuban people can build, it’s called Miami.

"Being self-employed is not about becoming more like America, it’s about being more like yourself.

"What changes come will depend on the Cuban people, we will not impose our political or economic system upon you … But having removed the shadow from our relationship, I must speak honestly about the things we believe."