While Cuba has never stopped receiving a regular influx of tourists from Canada, Latin America, and Europe, the potential growth the US market offers is enormous.
Currently Cuba receives around 2.8 million visitors every year, half of them from Canada. Mintur, the Cuban Tourist Ministry, estimates that if Americans were free to travel to Cuba today, the number of visitors would increase by two million the first year.
Last year the Cuban government was interested in getting its hands on analytics software to process the data generated by visitors on social networks. The idea was to quickly identify problems at government-run hotels and tourist facilities.
Because of the existing ban on American companies supplying technology to Cuba, Havana had to look somewhere else and found SocialVane, a small Spanish company on the island of Menorca, which has been working with the local tourist sector to analyze issues, trends, and potentials of the tourism industry.
The SocialVane platform was specifically designed by tourist industry professionals for the public administration to monitor and help make decisions about the health and challenges faced by its cities, tourist operators, and the overall tourist sector.
The fact that Cuba is able to turn to an analytics and big data provider to help its tourism industry at a time when that sector can grow substantially, shows how far this field has come from when only the largest firms could afford data scientists to crunch huge data sets.
The SocialVane platform was first piloted in Cuba with a handful of hotels. When the Cuban government saw the potential and benefits, it decided to run it at a national level.
I had the opportunity to talk with Hugo Sánchez, SocialVane's CMO, in the company's Barcelona office. He shared with me what the Cuban government is currently using the platform for:
- Monitoring each of their hotels and tourist establishments
- Monitoring all social media chatter in the main tourist locations
- Collecting all mentions of Cuba in social networks
- Collecting all mentions of Cuba's competitors
- Categorizing and segmenting all that information
Using the platform, Cuba has a much better overall view of what is happening in the region.
The biggest challenge, however, is the quality of Internet connections.
The Cuban government’s ban on satellite communication and the import of American networking equipment doesn't help. According to Ookla's Net Index, Cuba's global ranking for Internet speed is 196 out of 200, averaging 1.6 Mbps, just ahead of Guinea, Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, and Niger.
The White House fact sheet published in December, right after the announcement of renewed diplomatic relations, says that: "Cuba has an Internet penetration of about five percent -- one of the lowest rates in the world. The cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitantly high, while the services offered are extremely limited."
The US has announced plans to authorize the sale of consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, and services, but the Cuban government needs to lift its own import bans.
Sánchez talked about his experience last December in Havana, where he was demonstrating SocialVane's platform in real-time with live data to officials of Mintur at the very moment that the announcement came through of the full restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US. Everyone in the room started cheering and clapping, he said, and traffic on the platform skyrocketed, until it finally crashed due to the slow Internet connection at the government offices.
The Cuban government is very active in reshaping the country's industry, not only focusing on leisure and cultural tourism.
Recently Fira de Barcelona, the city's fairground management entity, announced a deal with the Cuban authorities to improve and manage their trade show and conference facilities and define the planning and organization of specialized shows on the site of Pabexpo in Havana.
"The Barcelona institution will also be responsible for helping to attract companies to these events and market them internationally," according to the press release.
Unfortunately for American companies, Cuba is now looking to Europe as its main source of technology and expertise. I fear that, by the time the embargo and other sanctions are lifted, it will be tough for US firms to penetrate the market.
One exception has been Airbnb.
The San Francisco-based house-sharing platform has already started listing Cuba's casas particulares (private homes licensed to host foreign tourists) for the American market. According to the company, "For the first time in decades, authorized U.S. travelers will have the chance to experience authentic Cuban hospitality at homes across the island." The site has over 1,000 listings in Cuba, only available to American travelers.
While the thaw between the US and Cuba has begun, it may take years for relations to fully normalize. In the interim, Cuba is losing no time in pulling in foreign expertise to haul itself into the 21st century. The reality that the authorities are choosing to employ sophisticated data analysis and technology platforms suggests they have been watching the outside world closely, even if they weren't players until now.