US, Cuba sign historic hotel deal

US, Cuba sign historic hotel deal

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide has become the first US hotel company to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution, announcing a multimillion-dollar investment a day before President Barack Obama is due to visit Havana.

Starwood will manage and market two properties in Havana and signed a letter of intent to operate a third.

Such deals would normally be prohibited under the US economic embargo of Cuba, but Starwood received special permission from the US Treasury Department last week.

Jorge Giannattasio, chief of Latin American operations, said the deals included a “multimillion-dollar investment to bring the hotels up to our standards,” making Starwood the first US company to commit major money to Cuba since Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels overthrew a pro-American government on January 1, 1959.

Castro quickly nationalised the tourism industry and made the Habana Hilton the new government headquarters for months.

Cuba’s tourism industry has boomed since the December 2014 rapprochement with the United States.

International visitors rose 17 per cent to a record 3.5 million in 2015, including a 77 per cent increase in American visitors to 161,000.

Cuba expects a similar increase in American visitors this year when scheduled airline service will resume despite a continued ban on tourism. Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba for 12 authorised purposes.

“The amount of travellers will skyrocket with direct flights,” Giannattasio said.

Obama relaxed restrictions further this week. Americans no longer need special permission to travel, or use guides, but must self-police their activities and keep records for five years.

Obama has called for Congress to do away with the 54-year-old embargo but has been opposed by the leadership of the Republican majority.

Starwood will operate the military-owned Gaviota 5th Avenue Hotel under its Four Points Sheraton brand, and the state-owned Gran Caribe Inglaterra Hotel under its Luxury Collection brand.

The deal could help Obama use his historic trip to showcase what he sees as the benefits of Washington’s diplomatic opening with the former Cold War foe after decades of hostility.

Image credit: iStock

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