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Cuban tourism surges as rest of Caribbean stalls

December 9, 2008 · , ,

Cuban tourism surges as rest of Caribbean stalls

Cuba’s vacation industry has remained as hot as the tropical sun here, 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 of visitors.

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 4 and 3 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 state employees are unaccustomed to putting 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, as well deep 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 Barbados-based Caribbean Trade Organization. Cuba has both, she said, “whether it’s swimming and beach or the excitement of Old Havana and Cuban history.”

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 thru 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 between 3 and 5 percent, however.

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 plans to delay 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.

Construction crews assigned to vacation properties in Havana and elsewhere have largely continued working as normal since the storms.

In the eastern province of Holguin, the island’s No. 3 tourist destination after Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, officials prioritized hotel repairs, trucking in workers to rebuild beachfront resorts. Holguin expects about 270,000 foreigners this year, about the same as 2007, despite scores of hurricane-related cancellations.

Havana’s decaying yet picturesque historic district saw little damage. Neither did Varadero, 90 miles (140 kilometers) to the east, where white sand and warm, see-through surf has enticed everyone from Fidel Castro to Al Capone. A record million visitors are expected to stay in the town’s 7,000 hotel rooms, which range in price from about $120 to $350 per night, with meals and open bar included.

Though European tour operators say sales have slowed since the financial crisis deepened in October, they expect trips to Cuba and some other Caribbean destinations to stay strong through the winter. Europeans are putting off short, side trips closer to home, but many families are still willing to splurge on once-a-year trips to the tropics, Hendry said.

“We have noticed that all-inclusive markets, where travelers can budget in advance, seem to be doing relative well. Cuba is quite well-populated with that sort of property,” she said.

The industry could get another boast if President-elect Barack Obama keeps campaign promises to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans who want to visit their relatives on the island. Currently, those with family here can only come once every three years.

Nelson Gonzalez, a 56-year-old physical therapist, said his mechanic brother in Miami last came to visit in 2007. But his brother called the morning after the U.S. election to say he was reserving a seat on one of the many special charters that fly from the U.S. to Havana for the last week in January — confident Obama will ease family travel rules immediately after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

“When your family members reach a certain age, you don’t know if in three more years everyone will still be here,” said Gonzalez, who lives with his 80-year-old parents.

Though visiting family members spend less than tourists, Gregori said many Cuban Americans use his company to book rental cars in advance of visiting relatives.

But “if you want to rent a car in Havana in December, I don’t have any,” he said. “They’ve been sold out for months, and every year they get sold out earlier and earlier.”