Cuba closed borders brings tourism to standstill

HAVANA,  Aug. 23 (Xinhua)   Esleidy Tamary, a 42-year-old mother, has worked as a local tour guide for more than a decade in Las Terrazas, an eco-village located an-hour drive south of the capital Havana, but the coronavirus pandemic changed her life all of a sudden.

In Cuba, which has reported 3,617 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 89 deaths so far, many tour guides have been affected by the health crisis since the government has adopted measures to slow the spread of the disease nationwide.

For Tamary, it was supposed to be a good season to guide groups of tourists visiting the UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) biosphere reservation, plan travel itineraries and introduce the customs and traditions of Cuban farmers.

However, she now finds herself harvesting crops at a nearby state-operated farm to support national food production, a paramount priority during the pandemic on the island.

“I miss close contact with tourists. We are sort of our country’s ambassadors,” said Tamary. “COVID-19 pandemic has put our work at risk but this is not going to last forever.”

“Now it is time to work on the land, but sooner or later I will welcome tourists again with a big smile on my face,” she said.

Since the island nation reported its first cases on March 11, the government has suspended international flights, requested vessels in Cuban territorial waters to withdraw, and extended the ban to all foreign tourists.

The acute decline in international tourists has hammered tourism in small communities and towns, as well as the country’s largest metropolitan areas.

During the pandemic, the more than 111,000 employees of the country’s tourism industry have worked to improve hotel facilities, or been relocated to essential economic activities, or put under paid leave.

Orlando Ramos, president of San Cristobal S.A. travel agency, told Xinhua that tourism will take some time to come back, and now, the top challenge to travel agencies is to preserve human resources despite the lack of income.

“We are giving our tour guides different tasks, such as translating documents at home, subtitling videos, and promoting Cuba as a safe tourist destination on social media and digital platforms,” he said. “We are redefining the workload of our workers in a new context.”

A new model of travel is required as long as the novel coronavirus sticks around, said Jose Luis Perello, a professor and an expert on tourism.

“It is possible that some tourists feel reluctant to go on a guided tour, but this is going to be temporary. It is not the end of tourism nor tour guides,” he said.