Posted on Tuesday, 12.09.08
Tourism thriving in Cuba
BY WILL WEISSERT
HAVANA — Cuba's vacation industry has remained as hot as the tropical
sun, even as the world economic crisis sparks cancellations and layoffs
elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The communist country says it's booked solid through December and
expects a record 2.34 million visitors this year — largely because
global financial woes have so far been softer on Canada, its top source
Luck also played a role: While the island suffered three devastating
hurricanes, its key tourist sites were largely spared. And where
beachfront resorts did get hit, the tourist-hungry government has made
sure to repair hotels — in some cases even before damaged homes and
infrastructure. Tourism is Cuba's second-largest source of foreign
income, behind nickel production.
So while other islands in the region are laying off hotel workers and
suspending construction of new property, Cuban resorts are gearing up
for a strong season.
''We've had a few cancellations, but overall our numbers are still
strong,'' said David Gregori of WowCuba, a travel agency in
Charlottetown, Canada, that specializes in bicycle trips and other Cuba
tours. “People still like to get away. They might try to save some
money while doing it, but they're still traveling.''
The number of foreign visitors has swelled nearly 11 percent this year,
making up for four and three percent declines in 2006 and 2007,
government figures show.
Officials offer no explanation for those slower years. But tour
operators blame the island's low returning-visitor rates: Some tourists
complain of poor service, crumbling infrastructure and lousy food,
indicative of a communist system where shortages are common and
employees don't put customer service first.
Still, the island is often cheaper than its subtropical neighbors,
because many foreigners buy all-inclusive packages offering dozens of
direct flights from Europe and Canada to airports all over Cuba, plus
discounts on hotels, food and booze.
Others are enticed by the prospect of seeing one of only five communist
countries left on the planet.
A lot of people go for a ''simple fly-and-flop holiday, and there are
others who are going for history and culture, dancing, music,'' said
Julia Hendry, marketing director for Europe and the United Kingdom of
the Bahamas-based Caribbean Trade Organization. Cuba has both, she said,
“whether it's swimming and beach or the excitement of Old Havana and
About 35 percent of this year's tourists have been Canadian, with
635,000 visiting through September, one-fifth more than in the same
period last year. Canada's economy has not suffered the same losses now
sapping the savings of homeowners in the U.S.
The number of Russian tourists rose 40 percent to top 28,000 through
September, and Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero traveled to Moscow
last month for more promotions.
Visitors from Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany — the top suppliers of
tourists after Canada — declined, however, between 3 and 5 percent.
Washington's trade embargo prohibits Americans from visiting, though
island immigration records show about 41,000 came last year, many
presumably without permission. But not relying on U.S. tourists may now
be a blessing.
''Canadians are going to keep coming, especially with snow at home,''
said Helen Lueke of Sherwood Park, Canada, who has vacationed in Havana
about once a year for decades.
Alexis Trujillo, Cuba's deputy secretary of tourism, predicted full
bookings at least through next summer.
''There's no doubt tourism is always sensitive to everything,'' he said
of global economic turmoil. “But we don't think that for Cuba that will
mean an important decrease.''
Tourism generated $2.2 billion for Cuba in 2007. The government has
announced no delays to a $185 million plan to upgrade more than 200
resorts and build 50 boutique hotels by 2010 — not even after
Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma hit within two months, causing more
than $10 billion in damages and crippling farms and infrastructure
across the countryside.