When more than two dozen elite American triathletes competed in La Habana Triathlon last month, it marked the first time U.S. triathletes had represented their country in Cuba since renewed diplomatic relations with the country were announced in 2014.
And when the U.S. earned five top finishes overall, it put the seal on an historic moment – and started the buzz in the sports industry. Was Cuba – known as the ‘pearl of the Antilles’ – positioning itself as the next go-to sports destination?
According to the travel site, RoughGuide, it depends on how – and how well – the area is marketed to the sports event industry. Presently, it doesn’t offer much to the youth sports market. While Cuba does have a full complement of scenery, history and novelty, its sports facilities – stadia, fields and more – fall well short of those in the U.S. as well as other destinations internationally. Basketball, baseball and soccer generate some exciting action, but the arenas are on the small side, and lack the technical advancements in appointments, surfacing and more that are found domestically.
It’s in its natural topography, however, that Cuba stands the opportunity to regain some of that lost ground. And it is those areas with appeal to adult athletes that ultimately may give Cuba a toehold in the sports travel market.
Outdoor activities, such as the recent triathlon, made the most of what Cuba does offer in abundance – pristine beaches, ruggedly mountainous areas and brilliant sunshine. It has also strategically positioned itself as offering some of the best fishing in the Caribbean, and tour operators have sprung up, ready to host fishing events across the waters that are being called “the best thing since the Florida Keys.”
Another Cuban growth area is expected to be golf. RoughGuide notes the sport’s associations with the pre-1959 ruling classes found it frowned-upon once Fidel Castro took power; however, the advent of mass tourism has brought it back, and though currently there are only two courses on the island, there are plans for more.
While it would seem the area is on the cusp of being the next big thing, it will take considerable time to build a bona fide sports tourism economy in Cuba. The airtime between Miami and Havana is only an hour, but limited flights are available, although some carriers, including JetBlue, have announced they will increase chartered flights in the summer of 2015.
In addition, restrictions still exist concerning travel. Currently, only certain Americans such as journalists, scholars, artists – and athletes – are eligible to visit Cuba presently. And opportunities go quickly; according to USA Triathlon, Barry Siff, President of the USA Triathlon Board of Directors, began pursuing the necessary travel licensing after meeting the Cuban Triathlon Federation President at the annual Pan American Triathlon Congress in June. Siff received word the license was approved in December, and USA Triathlon opened the opportunity to register for the races in Cuba to its annual membership. The age-group athlete spots made available on the sports-specific travel license were filled within 24 hours.
Clearly, the opportunities in Cuba – and the desire to compete there – do exist. But until travel is more porous, Cuba’s sports economy, as compared to the U.S., may be close, but no cigar.