The centre of Havana is busy with construction as it continues to regenerate and invest in quality hotels for the growing number of visitors to the city. The Government is refurbishing the Capital Building is following on from the noteworthy restoration of the Teatro Marti and the Gran Teatro de La Habana <Alicia Alonso> and there are new hotels springing up, along with major refurbishments. Wandering around the city, however, it seems that French contractor Bouygues has been the most successful in winning the construction work for many of the major projects, which combine the retention of essential characteristics of the architectural heritage of Havana with new facilities, including, in the case of the new Packard Hotel, a modernist block oversailing the original building, something which the University of San Geronimo of Havana did in a more modest way with its new building in Obispo Street. Other hotels under construction by Bouygues include the Hotel Prado y Malecon and the Hotel Manzana.
It has not been without controversy. Bouygues has insisted on bringing in its own labour, in this case a few hundred Indian workers, which is the first time a major contractor has bypassed Cuba’s state-run labour exchange to hire foreign workers on a large scale though, in 2014 the Cuban government did pass a foreign investment law that allowed “special regulations” for foreign workers under “exceptional circumstances”.
The problem are economics and supply and demand. With the much-needed investment in construction under way, local skilled workers can earn far more working for private clients than for the government and are therefore not available, while Indian workers earn roughly 10 times the government rate.
Tourism generated$2.8 billion in revenue in 2015 and continues to increase. Starwood Hotels is also investing in three new hotels in Havana including refurbishment of the iconic Ingleterra, which still looks much the same as it did when I stayed there 14 years ago. The challenge is to keep the unique features of these buildings while modernising and expanding them; in the case of the Ingleterra there are two residential buildings adjacent which are in poor condition and could provide an opportunity to expand the hotel.
Bouygues has been a long-term player in Cuba. In 1989 it’s Offshore Group helped to create the first terminal in Cuba for large oil tankers, located 90 miles east of Havana at the Port of Matanzas and, earlier this year, it was announced by the Cuban government that Bouygues had been selected in partnership with ADP (Aéroports de Paris) to carry out much-needed expansion of the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana along with other infrastructure modernisation and asset management to enable the airport to cope with the increasing demand from foreign visitors. It was also reported that a branch of the French Development Agency will open in Cuba, in order to finance other transport infrastructure and renewable energy projects.