The first U.S. cruise ship in nearly 40 years docked in Havana harbor on May 2. I happened to be in Cuba a few days earlier, and I came away with two key observations.
- Cuba has tremendous untapped potential.
- Cuba is not ready for what’s coming.
Daily scheduled airline service to Havana is increasing from 26 flights per day to 110 daily flights under a pact between the U.S. government and Cuba. The island nation has abundant charm and beauty, and it will have a chance to make a first impression on millions of visitors in the months ahead.
While the people, the architecture, the culture, and the cars will impress the newcomer, Havana is still a place where a visitor purchases toilet paper from an attendant before using a public restroom. The condition of the post-embargo era amenities for visitors may diminish those important first impressions that will shape Cuba’s reputation in tourism. The country needs to be doing a lot to manage expectations for tourists and for the Cuban people.
Finally, I suspect Cuba is ill prepared for a crisis. We assisted Aruba in the aftermath of the disappearance and presumed death of visitor Natalee Holloway. It had a severe negative impact on the Aruba’s reputation. Cuba has such tremendous potential, but it needs to be ready for the complications that will come with change and growth. One crisis can setback the perception of a tourist destination and its brand by a decade.
While it may seem like a daunting task to prepare Cuba for the myriad of crises that could emerge in the coming months, if I were advising the government, I would suggest a cabinet-level meeting to develop a common understanding and protocol for what will be done in the event of a crisis. I would establish clear lines of responsibility and communication that allow for quick and fluid decision making. I would likely suggest empowering the Minister of Tourism to be the lead spokesperson and coordinator for a range of crisis situations. I also would ensure that this person has proper communications training. Of course, this being communist Cuba, controlling the message may be second nature to the government.