Before going deeper into the origins of the Cuban hotel trade, we have to mention certain aspects of the Cuban history that characterized the opening of the first hotels in Cuba.
It was not until 1762, when Havana was taken by the English that the free trade with other countries started. The English left the island around the second half of 1763 in an exchange of lands with the Spaniards, who possessed Florida, but things would not change much for the rich Cuban people in the sense of trading with other nations. From that period on, Havana became a more prosperous city than ever and in 1818 it was already a free port.
It can be supposed that the flow of visitors to Cuba increased a lot as compared with the past and the lodging capacities were not enough. There were only some inns and boarding houses that were not suitable in the sense of accommodation and services for the traveler.
It was then that the first true hotels in Havana appeared. They were no longer mere lodgings and started to offer services that made the guests' stay more pleasant. New concepts were put into practice, for instance: to offer to the guests the new technical advances that the city enjoyed already.
As an example of this, we can mention the Telegrafo (Telegraph) Hotel founded in 1860 which is considered the oldest extant hotel in Cuba at present. This hotel, although in a different place from today, was located in one of the most popular corners of the city at that moment, Prado and Neptuno. In time, the Telegrafo Hotel would offer an excellent communication service with phones in every room and its own telegraphic service.
Next to the Telegrafo there was the Inglaterra (England) Hotel, also one of the oldest in Cuba. This hotel offered, for the first time, the service "a la carte". Before that, even though there was a restaurant and even the choice of trying good Spanish wines, clients had not had the opportunity to choose what they ate.
Among the firsts hotels built in Cuba is the Santa Isabel, founded in 1867 by an American man. He established it next to the Templete (Shrine) at the Arms Square, in the heart of the old city and afterwards he enlarged it to the former palace of the Santovenia Count where it still offers its fineness to the tourists visiting Havana.
The Santa Isabel was considered the best hotel of the city. It had big airy rooms, restaurant service, etc. The additional advantage of this hotel was the fact that the ladies were assisted by a staff of their same sex, that is to say, the hotel had maid service, something still unknown in Cuba. Besides that, the knowledge of the English language was introduced among the employees, a fact that increased its prestige within the emerging hotel business rivalry.
Another hotel that called the attention because of the exclusivity of its services during the last decades of the 19th century was the Miramar hotel, which no longer exists in our days. It was located just at the exit of the Havana bay in Malecon and Prado. This hotel was the first to establish that the waiters had to wear tuxedo and the employees were not allowed to have moustaches.
With the end of the Spanish rule over the island in 1898 and the establishment of the Republic, the hotel trade horizons widened considerably. The growth of the city and its increased urban assessment that intended to open to the modern world, as well as the increase of the Cuban bourgeoisie economic welfare, made possible the construction of new hotel facilities. But sometimes they did not fit the aspirations of certain guests and it was necessary to have a hotel that would please them, it was built then … the first luxury hotel.
The first hotel that had the requirements demanded at that time to be considered luxurious was the Sevilla hotel, founded in 1908. This hotel and the disappeared Almendares Hotel were the only luxurious hotels in Havana until 1930, when the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was built. We have already talked about this last one in our blog.
At the same time that the world interest on knowing the beauty of the island was growing, attracting a lot of visitors every year, there were other historical events that contributed to the hotel construction in Cuba to a great extent.
One of them was the approval by President Mario Garcia Menocal in 1919 of a law that legalized gambling for tourism purposes. The other one was the establishment in the United States of "The Prohibition" for almost 20 years. By that time, rum, the roulette, gambling and horse racing bets, the Jai Alai and cock fights, made the tourists' stay in Cuba very pleasant. As a result, on that period many hotels were built in Havana. We can mention among them the Palace and the Presidente (The President) in Vedado, and the Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds) and the Florida in the oldest part of the city.
But none of the prosperous periods in the island lasted long. The hotel infrastructure was left behind and there are records by the end of the 40's of last century that evidence it. There were a lot of lodging facilities in the capital and hardly any in the rest of the country. As an interesting fact to understand the above, we may say that the lodging capacity in Cuba at that time was about 5 800 rooms, of which 4000 were in the capital. In Matanzas province, including the afterwards famous beach resort of Varadero, there are records of only 504 rooms. Besides, most of them were old fashioned and inadequate as reported in a Presidential Bill of May, 1948. The building of new facilities was stagnant, in spite of the fact that the number of tourists increased considerably each year. A new turning point on the situation was the arrival to power of Fulgencio Batista in 1952.
At the beginning of the 50's, Cuba was more open to the Mafia interests who had taken control of gambling in the United States. It was the second time that gambling and the hotel trade coincided. If in the 20's it was intended to convert Cuba in the Montecarlo of America, now the reference was closer. The Mafia had plans to turn Havana into Las Vegas, the American city that had become a giant casino.
In 1959 the Cuban Hotel Directory registered the existence of 125 hotels with a total capacity of 7 728 rooms. Among them the St John's opened in March 1957, the Riviera opened in December of the same year, the current Habana Libre in March 1958 and the Deauville hotel that started to function in July 1958. Besides those, the National Hotel, the Comodoro and the Plaza were renovated. It would be good to point out that the foreign investment intervened only in the construction of the Varadero International hotel, the Habana Riviera and the Deauville. The others were built entirely with Cuban capital even though their management was given afterwards to American entities.
The Mafia had so many plans in Cuba and in Havana that they included the building of hotels, casinos and entertainment centers all along the Malecon (sea wall), so that avenue would be like an inner street between two hotel lines. Fortunately the project to combine gambling with the development of the hotel trade in Cuba, as it is known, could not be carried out because of the triumph of the revolution in January 1st, 1959. Nevertheless, at that moment, arriving at its one hundred anniversary, the city hotel trade counted with more than 50 hotels, four of them luxury hotels.
With the revolutionary process in power, and because it depended mostly on the American visitors, tourism decayed considerable and the leisure industry in Cuba went into a crisis. During the 90, s the tourist sphere in Cuba started to recover because the Cuban state recognized undeniable values of exploiting the international tourism as a way to support a country's inner economy. During those years started then the last stage (still in course) of the hotel trade in the largest of the Antilles, impulsing the building of modern competitive hotels all along the country. Nowadays, hotels are built wherever there were natural resources that could become a tourist attraction whether it is near or far from Havana. Thanks to the increase of the hotel facilities after the 90's, Cuba is again among the favorite world destinations when one thinks of spending his holidays
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