Major U.S. hotel groups sponsor tourism investment meeting in Havana

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The annual Latin American Hotel and Tourism Investment Conferences meeting opened in Havana this week and the list of sponsors read like the who’s who of the U.S. hotel industry.

The head of the organization, Arturo Garcia, told Reuters it was no accident that the likes of Marriott, Hilton , Hyatt, Choice and Wyndham were supportive.

“The next step in the development of the hotel business in Cuba is the participation of the U.S. companies here,” he said.

The event is the latest indication, following the signing of agreements earlier this year by major cruise companies, that the U.S. hospitality industry is betting that hotel operator and now President Donald Trump will not shut the Cuba door on his industry peers.

“We are very interested in Cuba as a destination for our guests,” David Tarr, senior vice president for real estate and development at Hyatt, said on Tuesday. "Certainly we hope relations will be normalized. Our guests want to visit, which is why we are here."

On the eve of President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba last year, and after obtaining a special Treasury Department license, Starwood became the first American hospitality company in more than half a century to operate a hotel, Four Points Sheraton, on the island.

“Most sponsors are waiting for this same approval and when they get it you will see their hotels all over the island,” said Garcia, the conference president.

U.S. travel to Cuba has already surged, albeit from very low levels, since the former Cold War foes announced a detente and the Obama administration eased travel restrictions beginning in 2015.

Cuba reported 4 million arrivals last year, of which 285,000 were Americans, with their numbers increasing at a rate of 18 percent so far in 2017.

World Travel and Tourism Council President David Scow said European and Canadian firms had helped attract and lodge their nationals when Cuban tourism opened up after the fall of the Soviet Union and it made sense the United States would follow.

“The U.S. market is opening up so you will see the U.S. companies invest once everything is ready in terms of the documentation (U.S. regulations),” he said.

Louis Alicea, Wyndham’s Latin American and Caribbean development director, said he hoped U.S. constraints would loosen further.

“Slowly but surely we are learning about the conditions here and our company is working together with the U.S. authorities in this process,” he said.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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