Any hope of saving a “vacation from hell” to Cuba?

If you were less than impressed with your last vacation, you’re in good company. Say “hello” to Colette Blanchette, who recently traveled to Cuba for what was supposed to be a relaxing tropical getaway.

It was February, and she and her husband were looking forward to escaping the cold Toronto winter. They’d booked a week at the Husa Cayo Santa Maria through Transat Canada. The trip was booked through her sister-in-law, who is a travel agent.

“We are not inexperienced travelers to Cuba, and know that you don’t go for the food but for the beaches,” she says. “But what we experienced has so soured our outlook on Cuba that we have decided to never travel there again.”

Blanchette calls it a “vacation from hell.”

How did the Husa Cayo, which describes itself as a “five-star” property, let them down? Let us count the ways.

No water. That’s right, they had no water in their room when they checked in. “The water did not come back on until Sunday night,” she says. “The water went off again on Tuesday all day and did not come back on until the evening for the entire resort.” It went out for two more days while they were at the hotel. The situation was so bad, she says, that the resort was directing guests to get water from the pool in order to flush the toilets. Water was not delivered to the rooms, guests had to go to the front desk in order to get bottled water and were limited to one bottle per person.

Food shortages. On top of the water outages, the couple reported frequent food shortages. When they tried to use the buffet on Sunday, they were met with a long line. A few days later, they decided to wait in a long line, only to find that there was no food left at the hot tables. “The line for the pasta and grill stations was one hour long,” says Blanchette. “By Wednesday there was a full-out brawl in the buffet due to the lack of food. People were frustrated and hungry.” (Riots at a tropical resort? That’s something you don’t hear about every day.)

Indifferent management. The couple contacted both the hotel’s management and their tour operator to complain. “Neither were willing to do anything to remedy the situation for the food or the water issues,” she says. “We spoke to other people at other resorts in the region and they assured us that they had water as we were being told that the whole island was out for water, which was a blatant lie. No compensation was offered or any alternative to the situation.”

After she returned to Toronto, Blanchette contacted Transat in writing. It didn’t respond to her, but sent a letter to her travel agent with the following explanation.

We are truly sorry to hear of your disappointment with the services and facilities of the Husa Cayo Santa Maria.

While every property may experience the occasional technical or operational problem, we do expect our guest to be provided with quality service and speedy resolution to any problem reported.

Transat strives to provide memorable holidays and we regret that it was not as expected. It is through this type of feedback that we can confirm the direction and quality of our services and that of our providers. The inconveniences you experienced during your stay are not to the standards of service Transat expects and we convey our sincerest apologies.

A constant and rigorous follow-up is performed to make sure our clients receive all the inclusions they are entitled to.

Regretfully, in some countries there is sometimes an unforeseen lack of supplies or a sudden shortage of hotel staff which prevent the hotel to deliver all the services in accordance with our contract.

This being said, we were assured by management of the resort that any problem reported is promptly attended to. One must keep in mind that conditions in other countries, both natural and man-made, may be significantly different from those we are accustomed to. As such, please know that your comments have been duly noted and a copy of the correspondence was forwarded to hotel management and our product department for their review.

Mrs. Maria Teresa Pont, General Manager of the Husa Cayo Santa Maria has responded and asked that we convey her sincerest apologies for any displeasure you may have experienced during your stay.

She has informed us that due to a major technical problem on the Island of Cayo Santa Maria, the Husa resort experienced a lack of water from time to time. Regarding the food and the lack of condiments, they are redesigning many procedures in the kitchen with new staff in order to offer more quality and variety of food.

Transat offered her a $200 voucher for a future Transat purchase. She wants a full refund. The company didn’t deliver the vacation it promised, plain and simple, she says.

I think a $200 voucher is a nice gesture, but Blanchette will need to book another Transat vacation, which I doubt she wants to do. If hers were a petty laundry list of complaints, I wouldn’t even be writing about this case.

But no water? No food? That’s unacceptable in any country.

Update (June 30): I contacted the tour operator. Here’s its response.

We were sorry to note that the last response letter and offers from our office did not meet with Mrs. Blanchette’s expectations.

With regards to problems affecting lack of water at the Husa Cayo Santa Maria, we were informed by Mrs. Marisa
Pont, General Manager that it was a problem with the main waterline pipe that supplies water to several hotels in the area affecting intermittently the water at the hotel.

As explained in our previous correspondence, this situation was out of the control of Transat, as we cannot predict a water problem or lack of condiment.

While we can understand the concerns raised by Mrs. Blanchette we respectfully consider that she and Mr. Durocher
received and benefited from the components of their package in accordance with our representation. Our offer of
$200.00CAD total was accepted and check cashed by Mrs. Blanchette as a goodwill gesture.

Should I mediate Colette Blanchette's case?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Anytime bodega. What’s weird is why she even need a “travel” agent (her sister). These things are packaged like Macaroni and Cheese.

  • TonyA_says

    Frank this is not like Hawaii. Cayo Santa Maria is an uninhabited island full of Western all-inclusive resorts. You can’t just walk out of your hotel to grab a burger. They do have what seems to look like a fake town named Pueblo La Estrella with tourist shops. You are totally dependent on your hotel resort for water and food. I think I’ll choose Hawaii anytime.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    no. Exaggerated nonscience.
    Good luck with your refund.

  • Meeksworth

    Yes, you do what you need to do. Flushing with a bucket of water is fine during a NATURAL DISASTER. It’s not what you expect when you go to a four and half star resort of vacation, especially if the weather if fine.

  • martizz

    first and the most main thing-need to choose where to go very carefully, before going need to get more possible information about country as a travel target….

    temporary residence permit

  • Wageslave

    I am curious how much more money would it have cost OP to stay in Florida? Our beaches, hotels, and food will win the Pepsi challenge against Cuba every day of the week. Anna Maria Island IMO has all the down home laid back beach house charm a person could ever want, and right next door Siesta Key offers a Caribbean vacation experience for those who prefer that kind of experience. I kinda understand the attraction of Cuba for Canadians – it’s inexpensive, cultured, and by all rights should be an exotic tropical resort paradise – if only they hadn’t been run by a stalinist communist regime and embargoed by the USA for the past 50 years.

  • John Baker

    @TonyA_says:disqus I read it this morning. Did you catch the disclaimer at the bottom about how all of the buildings and services on the island are owned by the Cuban Government?

    Guess that they’re as effect running a resort as the are a country.

  • Erica

    I think you should mediate, but that Transat Canada should take some responsibility as the traveler was relying on Transat to recommend a hotel that would fulfill its obligations. In a country where shortages are common, extra attention should be given so that travelers can be made aware of any problems. Otherwise, what’s the point of having an intermediary between the hotel property and the traveler?

  • TonyA_says

    Yup, after all they are still a Communist country, aren’t they?
    It is quite clear that the Spanish Hoteliers *manage* or *administer* the resorts, though. Not sure Cuba has the skill to do that.
    The whole place is literally an oasis. It has a diesel run power plant just for the resorts. The article says water is pumped from the “city” – so I guess poor Cubans have donated their share of water so the tourists can take showers.
    Did you see in the high resolution google maps the presence of two sewer plants near the resorts? With more than 5,000 rooms in such a small island that is a “preserve”, I wonder what they do with all the trash?

  • y_p_w

    Most of the cars on the road are actually pretty modern. Anyone traveling on a tour will probably be in a vehicle less than 10 years old that’s legally government owned. However, private ownership of cars is difficult, and thus those who have these old American cars do what they can to keep them running. The government doesn’t allow (or at least severely limits) the private purchase of cars in Cuba with the exception of cars that were registered before the Cuban Revolution.

    I remember reading a story in the magazine AutoWeek. The author got a permit to travel to Cuba on a cultural visit to check out the car scene and to meet local car enthusiasts. He brought along a gift – a set of used spark plugs. They were in reasonably good shape but would normally be tossed because it’s considered good preventative maintenance to replace plugs. The recipient accepted them like he was given gold. I’m not sure if they could have been used in the giftee’s vehicle, but it could have likely been bartered for something that he could use.

  • cahdot

    normal stuff for cuba’s a wonder they had toilet paper

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I’ve gone to Cuba a bunch of times and stayed at int’l chain hotels like Riu or Iberostar. Unbelievable value for what I paid. Sounds like the OP just picked a lousy property…

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    True. And the fact that the property was on a small island didn’t help…

  • Ann

    Her sister-in-law is the travel agent who booked it. She should be involved in negotiating with the supplier. She doesn’t deserve a full refund as she should have asked her travel agent to get her moved elsewhere but she does deserve more than she was offered since she did not receive what Transat stated she was to receive if she booked through them. Never take the first reply from a supplier – her agent should have gone back to Transat and said this was not good enough. Chris, yes, do get involved in this one.