MEXICO CITY — Starwood Hotels and Resorts is set become the first American hospitality chain to run hotels in Cuba in more than half a century, signaling the return of American companies to the Cuban travel market as the island gears up to receive a surge in visits from the United States.
Under two deals signed on the eve of a visit to Cuba by President Obama, Starwood will refurbish and manage the Hotel Inglaterra on the Parque Central near Old Havana and the Hotel Quinta Avenida, a 186-room business hotel in the upscale district of Miramar. The hotels should begin running under the Starwood brand this year, the company said.
Starwood, which has its corporate headquarters in Stamford, Conn., will be managing hotels owned by Cuban state enterprises — including a military conglomerate — creating the deepest ties so far between an American company and the Cuban government since President Obama announced a diplomatic thaw between the countries in December 2014.
Jorge Giannattasio, Starwood’s senior vice-president and the head of its Latin America operations, said that Saturday’s deals were “a pivotal moment.”
“We are in an inflection point in the relationship between the two countries and in the hospitality industry,” said Mr. Giannattasio, who spoke by phone from Havana. The deal, he added, would “create new expectations for the quality of Cuban hotels.”
Under the management agreement, the Hotel Inglaterra, which is owned by Gran Caribe, a Cuban state tourism company, will become one of Starwood’s Luxury Collection hotels. The Quinta Avenida, which is run by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run tourism group, will become a Four Points by Sheraton hotel.
Mr. Giannattasio said that the company received a license from United States Treasury Department last week that, in addition to the Inglaterra and Quinta Avenida hotels, allowed it to operate the Hotel Santa Isabel in Old Havana and one other, which he declined to name. Starwood has signed a letter of intent with Habaguanex, a Cuban state-run company that owns many properties in Old Havana, to manage the Santa Isabel, he said.
Saturday’s announcement could presage an influx of American hotel chains into Cuba, where many hotels are run under management contracts with European brands, including Sol Melia and Iberostar. Marriott International is also reported to be seeking a license from the Treasury Department to run hotels in Cuba.
The island has a shortage of high-quality hotel rooms, and Cuban officials and foreign tour operators have wondered how it will cope with a deluge of American travelers, who are expected to visit Cuba in growing numbers after the Treasury Department relaxed travel regulations last week.
The Obama administration said in February that it was preparing to sign an agreement with Cuban authorities that would allow commercial airlines to offer more than 100 daily flights to Cuba from the United States. There are currently only about 15 flights a day run by charter companies.
Last week, the administration said that Americans who wish to visit Cuba on “people-to-people” trips can now travel independently, rather than as part of organized tours that cost several thousand dollars.
Still, hotel accommodations in Cuba are often overbooked and very outdated. Travelers have complained of musty-smelling rooms with poor air-conditioning or no toilet paper and unappetizing food at state-run hotels. The Hotel Inglaterra, for example, has an elaborate neo-Classical facade and a storied history — Winston Churchill stayed there during the Spanish-American War — but modest bedrooms.
Under the deals signed on Saturday, the two hotels will be run by management crews from Starwood but will be primarily staffed by Cubans. Mr. Giannattasio said that Starwood would be paid a management fee to run the hotels, a similar arrangement to those the group has in other countries.
The hotel is interested in running more hotels in Havana or other cities of cultural interest, he said, adding that hotels in tourist resorts were off limits because restrictions still forbid American tourism under the embargo.
“There are many opportunities for us and other American companies,” said Mr. Giannattasio. “This is just the beginning.”