Canadian snowbirds boost Cuban tourism recovery
Published on Thursday, April 10, 2008
HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters): Canadian tourists fleeing a harsh winter and
buoyed by their strong dollar are flocking to Cuban beaches in record
numbers and helping Cuba's tourist trade end a two-year slump.
Cuban hotel managers said a surge in Canadian "snowbirds" led to
unprecedented tourism during the winter months of January through March.
And prospects for hotels during the summer improved last week when the
government of Cuba's new President Raul Castro lifted a ban on Cubans
staying at resort hotels formerly reserved for foreigners only.
Uncertainty over Cuba's future since Fidel Castro fell ill nearly two
years ago and handed over power to his brother has not deterred tourism.
On the contrary, having Cuba in the news has spurred interest in
visiting the communist-run country, travel agents said.
The tourist trade, a major source of hard currency for Cuba, peaked in
2005 with the arrival of 2.3 million visitors, but dropped to 2.1
million last year, of which some 600,00 were Canadians.
But in January this year Cuba received more tourists than in any high
season since it opened up to foreign investment and tourism in the
mid-1990s: 247,386 visitors. Almost half were Canadians, a 30 percent
increase over January last year.
"The high season has been very good, and it's thanks to the Canadians,"
said a European hotel manager who asked not to be named because he was
not authorized to speak to a journalist.
Cuba has acted on complaints of poor service, he said, and reduced the
theft of luggage and immigration delays at Cuban airports, where about
50 flights land each week from Canada.
Cuba's ministry of tourism has actively sought new business offering
tour operators better-priced deals compared to rival Mexican and
Dominican destinations, the manager said.
Last year Cuba also cut the price it charges for aviation fuel, lowering
charter company costs, he said.
American tourists are barred by US law from visiting the Caribbean
The European market remains stagnant for Cuba, according to official
figures for January. But Spanish tourism is picking up after a drop due
to the purchase by American companies of two travel businesses,
Iberoworld and Pullmantur, which eliminated them from operating in Cuba
under US sanctions.
"The statistics are looking very rosy through 2010," said a British
travel agency representative with strong bookings through the summer.
Britain is the second source of tourists for Cuba after Canada, with
about 25 charter flights a week.
Cuba expanded its hotel capacity to 44,000 rooms in 2006, about half
administered by foreign companies such as Spanish chain Sol Melia and
Cuba's resort hotels were off-limits for Cubans too until last week,
when the restriction was lifted.
"This is a good way to raise occupancy in the low season, when hotels
are only half full," the European manager said.