Havana airport will be refurbished French-style

HAVANA — In a way, we could see it coming. The announcement that José Martí International Airport would be expanded and managed by French companies is the result of three basic factors: the regular flights between Cuba and the United States, the increase in Cuba-bound tourism, and a favorable economic and political climate between Havana and Paris.

The competitiveness of both firms is beyond question. Bouyghes Bâtiment International has had years of experience working with Grupo Gaviota in the development of tourist projects. And Paris Airports manages Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris, in addition to 25 other airports worldwide.

José Martí International Airport and how it currently looks.

“With the infrastructures of our main airports, it was difficult to guarantee a truly efficient flow of aircraft and passengers,” explains José Luis Perelló, researcher and professor at the University of Havana’s Tourism School. “It was vital to find a foreign company with an experience good enough to help the Cuban airport sector to update processes and improve installations.”

The definitive contract must be signed next year; the amount of the investment is unknown. Some works will begin soon, others in the period until 2020, others until 2030.

“It is a process that begins now, so we cannot expect to achieve ideal conditions immediately,” Vice Minister of Transportation Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila told the press.

The infrastructure represents a pending task, sure enough. However, judging from some very generalized criteria, a big red flag points to the airport services. Delays, poor treatment and negligence are almost habitual at “the nation’s gates,” through which come more than half of the international visitors.

Justifiably, Rita María García, head of the business group of the Cuban Aviation Business Corporation (CACSA), praised the possibility of attracting the know-how — better said, the savoir faire — of French companies.

García said that, as a rule, the company will not replace the Cuban personnel; it expects to optimize the work with the same staff. A worker at the Check-In department, who asked not to be identified, told us that the staff has not been informed about the upcoming changes.

More than 110 foreign airlines operate in Cuba’s 10 international airports. Passenger transit through those facilities rose 18 percent in 2015. According to Rodríguez Dávila, a process of selection to replicate this modality of business at airports in Cayo Coco, Varadero, Santa Clara, Holguín and others will begin very soon.

“In my opinion, little by little, all Cuban international airports will have to sign management contracts — awarded through open bids — with foreign companies,” Perelló said.

The professor pointed out that, based on the Foreign Investment Act, airports could be expanded or built that would connect directly with the main areas of development, such as the Mariel Zone, the Cayos del Norte in Villa Clara, Jardines del Rey, San Julián Airport in Guanahacabibes and the Casilda-Ancón-Trinidad region.

A similar experience could be applied to the cruise terminals and international marinas. “In all cases, the management contracts will acknowledge that all the means and installations will remain Cuban property,” he stressed.

Economic diplomacy 

On Oct. 24, the personal envoy from President François Hollande for Latin America and the Caribbean, Jean-Pierre Bel, received the Cuban State Council’s Medal of Friendship for his contribution to bilateral ties. At the ceremony, the Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, Rogelio Sierra, said that the two countries “find themselves at a special moment.”

On the same day, the French Development Agency (AFD) opened an office in Havana. The agency has a fund of about 500,000 euros and is already working on a cattle development project in Camagüey.

French Ambassador Jean-Marie Bruno and the Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, sign an intergovernment accord on the conditions for AFD's work in Cuba.
French Ambassador Jean-Marie Bruno and the Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, sign an intergovernment accord on the conditions for AFD’s work in Cuba.

On July 29, French Ambassador Jean-Marie Bruno and the Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, signed an intergovernment accord on the conditions for AFD’s work in Cuba. The French group consists of the agency itself, its subsidiary, Proparco, and its business school, CEFEB.

According to a communiqué from the French Embassy in Havana, the accord will lead to the concession of financing for priority sectors: renewable energy, water and sewage, sustainable tourism, farm food, and transportation.

“The agency will finance projects that contribute to Cuba’s development in the aforementioned sectors, through long-term loans under preferential financial conditions,” the document says.

When it was learned that the two French firms had won the bidding to operate at José Martí airport, the French Secretary of State for Transportation, Sea and Fisheries, Alain Vidalies, and the Secretary of State for Foreign Trade and Tourism Promotion, Matthias Fekl, issued statements welcoming the news.

Those signs indicate a bonanza in bilateral relations that simultaneously land and take off.

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