By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
In April 2000, my wife, Professor Rima Sokoloff, and I visited Cuba with an educational study group. Our weeklong trip included visits to beaches, farms, cigar factory, schools, reforestation project, hospitals, historic sites and a Passover seder at a Havana synagogue. I subsequently wrote about our trip in Lodging Hospitality magazine (August 2000) “Cuba: The Caribbean’s Hottest Destination”:
The streets are apparently safe and relatively free of crime; no beggars, no homeless but long lines of people waiting patiently to buy the famous Coppelia ice cream.
Of course, there is no opposition press, no anti-government political parties, no free elections. There is rationing and what appears to be a benevolent governmental dictatorship. With the shortages of building supplies, the monumental city of Havana has derelict buildings everywhere in need of repair, plastering and painting. Despite these severe shortages, Cuba has devoted its limited resources to education with 98% literacy and 100% universal health care for all.
Incredibly, Cuba has one of the best medical systems in the world with twice as many physicians per capita as the US Its infant mortality rate and life expectancy are about the same as in the US and its HIV/AIDS prevalence is almost nonexistent.
We stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and toured Cuba in a new Volvo air-conditioned buses complete with bathrooms in the rear.
The 513-room Hotel Nacional was built by the Purdy & Henderson Company to the designs of the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead &White who also designed the original Penn Station in New York, the Hotel Pennsylvania, the Savoy-Plaza, the Garden City Hotel, the Harvard Club of N.Y., Columbia University and many more projects across the United States.
Cuba is a large island, three-quarters the size of Florida and 12.5 times bigger than Puerto Rico and offers great opportunities for development. It is the least commercialized Caribbean country with substantial cities like Havana, Matanzas, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, Bayamo, Baracoa, and Santiago de Cuba. With 2.1 million inhabitants, Havana is the largest city in the Caribbean. Founded on its present site in 1519, its picturesque old town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
When the Hotel Nacional opened, tourists from America flooded the hotel’s spacious reception areas, gardens and restaurants. From its opening, the hotel was visited by American legends like Errol Flynn,
Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, and many more.
The hotel’s long central building parallels the coast and its cross wings are marked by two open rooftop towers. The garden on the northside features two 18th century cannons, fountains, illuminated trees, a marble mosaic map of Cuba and benches where guests sit and enjoy the view from the edge of the cliff of Havana Harbor.
The history of the Hotel Nacional is linked to the US mobster years. In 1946, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky hosted an infamous mob summit attended by Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many others. Francis Ford Coppola memorialized the conference in his film “The Godfather Part II.”
By 1955, Lansky had managed to persuade Batista to give him a piece of the Nacional. That same year Pam Am’s InterContinental Hotels Corporation (IHC) took over management of the hotel. IHC became the major owner and it was rated as one of the top ten hotels in the world. Their partners were the United Fruit Company (35%) and Cuban interests (18%) which purchased a 34-year unexpired lease term from the Kirkeby Hotel Group.
In 1956, singer Nat King Cole was contracted to perform in Cuba and wanted to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, but was not allowed to because he was black. Nevertheless, Cole honored his contract and the concert at the Tropicana was a huge success. The following year, he returned to Cuba for another concert, singing many songs in Spanish. There is now a tribute to him in the form of a bust and a jukebox in the Hotel Nacional’s museum.
In January 1956, a new wing of the elegant hotel, consisting of the famous Casino Internacional, the adjoining Starlight Terrace Bar, and the Casino Parisien night club (home of the Famous Dancing Waters), opened for business with a show starring Eartha Kitt. The show, casino and clubs were an immediate success. By the spring of 1957, the casino, leased by Lansky for a substantial rent, was bringing in as much cash as the biggest casino in Las Vegas.
Fidel Castro closed the casino in October 1960, almost two years after his overthrow of Batista. After years of neglect due to the disappearance of tourism following the revolution, the hotel was mainly used to accommodate visiting diplomats and foreign government officials. The collapse of the USSR forced the Cuban communist party, anxious for foreign exchange reserves, to reopen Cuba to tourists.
In 1990, the government renovated the Hotel Nacional and, when it reopened in 1992, it catered mostly to high-class tourists and foreign businessmen. There’s an executive floor with concierge service, meeting rooms, and a business center. All the guest rooms are air-conditioned and equipped with minibars and cable television. The hotel has a museum, gym, tennis courts and two large swimming pools.
In 1998, the hotel was declared a national monument by the National Monuments Commission based upon its architectural value, its place in Cuban history and the international events it has hosted.
A number of guest rooms have been declared historic because of occupancy by Nat King Cole, Company Segundo, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Maria Felix, Johnny Weissmuller, Bola de Nieve, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Agustin Lara, Stan Musial, Jorge Negrete, Paul Casal and Errol Flynn. On display in each room are photographs and a biographical profile of each celebrated former occupant.
The US and Cuba are natural trading partners and the anachronistic US embargo has deprived American companies of numerous opportunities to do business in Cuba. Washington’s travel restrictions have cost US hotel companies, tour agents, and airlines billions of dollars in lost revenues. Meanwhile, many European hotel companies, such as Spain’s Sol Melia, have been building new hotels in Cuba. It seems absurd that while the US has normal trading privileges with giant communist China, it continues the trade embargo on tiny communist Cuba. The American Society of Travel Agents has long backed freedom of travel to Cuba and elsewhere as a basic human right. President Obama’s recent executive action to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, with Pope Francis’ encouragement, is a long-overdue and welcome change.
This article has been excerpted with the author’s permission from the book, “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi,” AuthorHouse 2013. The author, Stanley Turkel, is a recognized authority and consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel, hospitality and consulting practice specializing in asset management, operational audits and the effectiveness of hotel franchising agreements and litigation support assignments. Clients are hotel owners, investors and lending institutions.