Travel and culture

A Facelift For Old Havana On Its 500th Anniversary

Old Havana
San Cristóbal de la Habana celebrates its first 500 years of existence this 2019.

Havana was a Spanish colony for four centuries, English for one year, occupied by US troops, pounded by hurricanes and even a tornado, and the epicenter of several of the most important political moments of the last century. San Cristóbal de la Habana celebrates its first 500 years of existence this 2019.

HAVANA IS 500 YEARS OLD

Havana is considered the main tourist destination of a country that expects to receive more than five million visitors in 2019. It currently lacks the hotel capacity to meet the growing demand, nor does it have enough private rooms, most of them registered on Airbnb.

This has been well understood by the large Spanish hotel groups Iberostar and Meliá, as well as other competitors who are on the ground, such as the Swiss hotel group Kempinski, the French group Accor and the Singaporean group Banyan Tree.

Old Havana
The cranes working in the construction of hotels are visible from various parts of the city. Photo: Abel Rojas

To date, 20 international hotel chains operate in Cuba, 10 of which are Spanish (Iberostar, Meliá, Barceló, Globalia, Sercotel, NH, Blau and Roc), which control 43,252 rooms throughout the country, representing 63,6% of the total number of hotels.

TOURISM IS KEY TO CUBAN ECONOMY

Tourism is key to the Cuban economy because it contributes 10% to the GDP and remains the second source of income, only surpassed by the sale and provision of professional services abroad. By 2030, tourism authorities expect to have more than 103,000 rooms available.

A tour of Old Havana, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, shows that the multimillion-dollar investment program has resulted in the construction of new tourist facilities. Some of the hotels in Old Havana opened their doors between 2016 and 2018, while others will do so this year and in 2020.

Old Havana
Havana needs large investments to rebuild its fragile infrastructure. Photo: Abel Rojas

PanamericanWorld invites you to get closer to what is happening on the iconic Paseo Martí, better known as Paseo del Prado, the first paved street in Havana which begins at the Indian Fountain or Fuente de la India and runs all the way up to the sea wall or Malecón.

HAVANA GLOWS UP!

At first glance, the Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski rises to your right, a five-star plus hotel with 246 rooms, including 50 suites. Since its inauguration in 2016, it has become part of all tourist tours around the Cuban capital.

It is quite expensive, but this is of little concern to those wanting to take a picture at the hotel, which earned the Versailles Continental Architecture Award for the extraordinary restoration and renovation of the old building.

Old Havana
The dome of the Capitol is under restauration. Photo: Abel Rojas

Havana by night, an encounter with bohemian lifestyle

Closer to the Malecón sea wall, Iberostar entered the luxury segment with the Grand Hotel Packard which boasts 321 rooms, several gourmet restaurants, a beauty salon, clinic, gym, spa, meeting and event rooms and an infinity edge pool on the fourth floor.

HAVANA CHANGES TO PRESERVE ITS ESSENCE

On the other side of the avenue rises the luxurious Habana Paseo del Prado, a major venture for the French group Accor, which will open in early 2020. The location is spectacular with the intersection between Prado and Malecón being one of the best known and busiest in the country.

The new facility fashioned after the bow of a ship is 36 meters high and offers a breathtaking view of some must-see places in Havana, such as the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (Morro Castle) and the fortress of San Salvador de la Punta.

Old Havana
Some of the world’s greatest dancers have graced the stage of the Gran Teatro : Abel Rojas

These are not the only hotels in Old Havana under construction. In the Colón corner, at the Prado, the scaffolds and the constant presence of workers point to progress at the Regis Hotel, a colonial building that will offer a total of 61 rooms, including a penthouse and five suites. Zubieta Street, next to the Museo of la Revolución (former Presidential Palace), where a tobacco shop was formerly in business, will now house the Hotel Corona.

Bars in Havana: the return of neon lights

Old Havana
The “Gran Manzana Kempinski” Hotel was the first luxury facility that opened in Havana. Photo: Abel Rojas

Like all capitals, Havana is a city of many contrasts and has everything a visitor wants to see. There is a Havana that is visible, a very tourist Havana, with many hotels open or under construction, lounges to try unique tobaccos and cabarets of international fame. And there is also another Havana on the fringes of all this glamor, with odd rooftops and humble folks who struggle to survive and to preserve their cultural roots at all costs. These two Havanas are not opposed, but complementary, and they celebrate, albeit in different ways, five centuries of history.

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