Marriott actively pursuing more hotel projects in Cuba

Marriott actively pursuing more hotel projects in CubaHAVANA, August 18th Marriott International is still pursuing plans to renovate and manage the historic Hotel Inglaterra on the fringe of Old Havana and is actively looking for other hotel projects throughout Cuba.

“Marriott is about growth and being where customers want to travel,” Tim Sheldon, Marriott International’s president of the Caribbean & Latin American region, said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “Havana is a great place to start, but we are looking all over Cuba.”

Cuba received 2.67 million international travelers during the first six months of 2017 and expects to eclipse last year’s record 4.1 million international arrivals by year’s end.

Without being specific, he said Marriott has a couple projects in mind in the Cuban market. It currently manages a Sheraton Four Points in Havana’s Miramar section and hopes to begin renovations soon on the Inglaterra, a hotel that dates to 1875 and is located near the recently renovated Gran Teatro de la Habana.

For any new ventures, Sheldon said Marriott is “waiting for clarity from the current administration.”

When President Donald Trump announced his new Cuba policy in June, he indicated that regulations would be drawn up that would prohibit most U.S. business with enterprises owned or controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence services. But the administration has said that companies that already have agreements with the Cuban government will be grandfathered into the new policy.

Marriott, which will have 240 hotels in the Americas by year’s end, got its small Cuban hotel portfolio when it merged with Starwood Hotels & Resorts to form the world’s largest hotel company. The merger closed last September.

Starwood became the first U.S. hotel company in more than half a century to strike a deal with the Cuban government. On the eve of former President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016, Starwood announced it had signed deals to operate the Hotel Inglaterra and the Hotel Quinta Avenida, located on Havana’s Fifth Avenue.

The Inglaterra, which is opposite Havana’s Parque Central, had originally been scheduled to open under U.S. management on July 1, 2016, but Sheldon said the historic nature of the Inglaterra is making renovations more complicated. “We need to be sensitive to the historic aspects as we are updating to modern accommodations,” he said.

Sheldon said Marriott personnel met with their Cuba counterparts to discuss renovations this week, “but we won’t take over the hotel management until the efforts around the renovations are completed.” That could take another six months or so, Sheldon said.

When it reopens, the 83-room Inglaterra, which is owned by Gran Caribe — a Cuban state tourism company, will become part of The Luxury Collection. With luxury travel up 50 percent in the last five years, Marriott is particularly focused on its luxury brands in the Americas. It now has 42 luxury hotels in the region, Sheldon said.

The former Quinta Avenida opened as a Four Points by Sheraton in June 2016, making it the first U.S. hospitality brand to appear in Cuba in more than five decades. The hotel is owned by Gaviota, one of the Cuban military’s hospitality brands.

The hotel in Havana’s Miramar section has extensive grounds and a prime location that is favored by diplomats and business travelers. Sheldon said Americans comprise about 26 percent of the Four Points’ clientele.

“That hotel is performing really well,” said Sheldon. “It has good strong occupancy.”

It’s currently scheduled for a series of upgrades, including new paint, furnishing, bedding and linens, said Sheldon.

One advantage for American travelers is that they can book and pay for their reservations at the Sheraton Four Points online with credit cards issued by any U.S. bank.

When the hotel opened as a Four Points, guests were required to pay for any extras in cash. But Marriott says it will now accept cards issued by Stonegate Bank or National Bank of Puerto Rico for extra expenses incurred at the hotel. Although new rules issued during the Obama administration allowed U.S. travelers to use credit card issued by U.S. banks in Cuba, those are the only two U.S. banks that support such transactions.

Last year, Starwood also announced a letter of intent to operate a third property, the 19th century, colonial-style Hotel Santa Isabel, which is on the Plaza de Armas, as part of The Luxury Collection. But Sheldon was not specific about whether the Santa Isabel deal was still on the table. The hotel is owned by Habaguanex, which operates many businesses in Old Havana and was transferred in recent years to the military-controlled conglomerate GAESA.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi