HAVANA, Aug. 22th (Reuters) – Tourist arrivals to Cuba plunged 23.6% on the year in July,
HAVANA, May 20th A total of 17 cruise lines brought about 800,000 passengers to Cuba last year, according to Cuba tourism ministry numbers published by the U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
HAVANA, April 19th New restrictions were announced last night for US travellers wishing to visit Cuba, throwing the travel industry into confusion about whether Americans will still be able to vacation there.
HAVANA, Jan 30th (Reuters) – Tourism to Cuba, one of the few bright spots in its ailing economy, has slid in the wake of Hurricane Irma and the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island, a Cuban Read more
HAVANA, 14 marzo (ACN) — Despite forecasts of the possibility of Cuban tourism failing to keep the upward trend shown in the last years, the Caribbean island’s leisure industry posted 14.6 percent growth in the first 71 days of 2016.
According to a report issued by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR by its Spanish acronym), the number of visitors to the island nation reached the one-million mark 11 days ahead of the previous year.
After posting record figures in 2015, when over 3.5 million tourists landed in Cuba, for a 17.8 percent growth compared to the year before, some media and experts believed it would be impossible to maintain the trend.
But source markets like Germany, the UK, the US, France and Italy continued to increase their operations, along with the largest and most traditional, Canada, which represents almost a full third of all visitors.
The press release by MINTUR stated that all its entities, along with the Cuban government and people, are working to improve the quality and the amount of lodging facilities to meet the high demand Cuba is facing nowadays.
The new strategies of the industry include diversifying tourism offers to go beyond being a sun and sand tourist destination, to become a cultural, historical, nature and event heaven for visitors.
HAVANA, Jan. 26th (REUTERS) Cuba’s tourism industry is under unprecedented strain and struggling to meet demand with record numbers of visitors arriving a year after detente with the United States renewed interest in the Caribbean island.
Its tropical weather, rich musical traditions, famed cigars and classic cars were for decades off limits to most Americans under Cold War-era sanctions, but those restrictions are fading.
Once a rare sight, Americans are now swarming Old Havana’s colonial squares and narrow streets along with Europeans and Canadians.
Entrepreneurs and hustlers have responded by upping prices on taxi rides, meals, and trinkets. Cuban women who pose for pictures in colorful dresses and headwraps while chomping cigars are now charging $5 instead of $1.
Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.
Industry experts worry the island will be unable to absorb an even greater expected surge when scheduled U.S. commercial airline and ferry services are due to start this year.
As it is, foreigners face extreme difficulties booking hotels and rental cars, and those who hoped to discover Cuba before the hordes arrive realize they are too late.
“Cuba is over the top with tourists right now. I’ve seen so many Americans, it’s not even funny,” said Ana Fernandez, 44, of Nashville, Tennessee.
Gisela Hoiman, 46, a schoolbook editor from Berlin, hoped to see Cuba “before it changes” but was disappointed to find long airport lines, ubiquitous hucksters and masses of tourists. She was stranded in Havana when she was unable to get a spot on the bus leaving for the eastern city of Santiago.”It was too much to handle, too many other tourists. We stood in line and were sent back and forth to different counters,” she said from an Old Havana cafe with her large backpack parked on the floor. “I don’t think Cuba is prepared.”
The United States and Cuba agreed in December 2014 to end five decades of animosity and have since restored diplomatic ties, igniting international buzz about Cuba.
The opening has benefited Cuba’s small private sector, which offers restaurants and rooms for rent in family homes.
But the tourism infrastructure, with just 63,000 hotel rooms nationwide, is still largely a function of the state and has languished under decades of U.S. economic sanctions and underdevelopment.
“From offloading at the airport to restaurant availability, infrastructure is maxed out,” said Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes tours for legally permitted travel for Americans.
A select number of foreign-run hotels, such as those of Spain’s Melia Hotels International SA (MEL.MC), fill up fast, leaving many visitors with little option but tired state-run motels or rooms in private homes.
Some have been priced out or bumped from hotels, especially in Havana, where high-end U.S. groups reserve blocks months in advance and pay higher prices.
“It is kind of a slap in the face as it has been the Canadian and European tourists who have helped keep the Cuban economy afloat for the past 25 years,” said Keri Montgomery, owner of Vancouver-based Finisterra travel.
The government is seeking more foreign investment and has plans to reach 85,000 hotel rooms nationwide by 2020, but the pace is slow and development has mostly favored beach destinations rather than Cuba’s cultural centers.
Cuban officials did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
American tourism is still banned under the U.S. trade embargo but U.S. citizens and residents are allowed to visit under 12 categories including for religious, sporting and educational exchanges.
In one of his first moves after rapprochement, Obama made it easier for those 12 categories of travelers to go to Cuba.
The increased presence of Americans is especially noticeable in Havana, and because there has been little enforcement of the tourism ban, some are also enjoying Cuba’s beaches and bars with little effort to disguise their intentions.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has not fined any Americans for visiting Cuba since Obama took office in January 2009, its database shows.
Under President George W. Bush, OFAC fined hundreds of individuals for embargo violations, mostly for travel. More than 800 people received penalties including nearly $1.1 million in fines in 2004 and 2005 alone, according to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service.
California native Tony Pandola, 33, who has been leading Americans around Cuba for three years, said once-intimate experiences are now plagued by crowds.
“On this really beautiful, quiet farm there were six giant tour buses with their diesel engines running and a couple of minivans and taxis all waiting to have the same experience with the tobacco farmer,” he said from Viñales, a picturesque valley west of Havana.
While many budget travelers can usually find accommodations even without booking, some are left stranded.
“I talked to a cab driver in Viñales who said they were offering tourists to sleep in the back of their car for $10,” Pandola said.
Leonardo Diaz, 34, who has been working in tourism in his hometown of Viñales since he was a teen, said every room was booked in December.
“A lot of tourists have stayed in the park. That had never been seen before,” he said.
Havana’s international airport lacks sufficient infrastructure such as luggage trucks and passenger stairs to handle the influx, causing bottlenecks.
“It’s total madness,” said Roniel Hernandez, who works at the terminal receiving U.S. flights. “The airport employees are doing everything possible to satisfy visitors, but the equipment is very old and needs to be replaced.”
Retired teacher Joanna Sarff finally came to Cuba after dreaming about it for 50 years, so she refused to let the inconveniences spoil her trip, saying she was more focused on plans to dance on the tables at a Buena Vista Social Club concert than the crowds.
“For me, this is a great way to experience the culture, the people, the food, the mojitos, and the cigars!”
HAVANA, August 43 It will be the largest number of American tourists to arrive in Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. The increase is expected to exceed the 50% of visitors who have already made their bookings.
While authorizations for all kinds of travel and transportation companies are multiplying in the U.S., moving beyond the tourist blockade of the island, Cuba is declaring that the last quarter of 2015 could beat all records in U.S. tourism since the Revolution given that so far and despite visa restrictions American tourist presence has increased by 50%.
An absolutely clear signal is that hotel chains have started to work out agreements with the almost 20,000 private rooms that provide cheap accommodation in Cuba, by hiring beds to which tourists will be redirected when they have no space.
These agreements are quite unprecedented since private rooms for rent are – at least in theory – illegal and up to this point the big chains had never dealt with the issue except to criticize these accommodations where necessary. 70% of these unofficial rooms are located in Havana.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved the lifting of the ban on travel to Cuba, which is only the first step in a series of legislative guarantees that Democrats and a section of the Republicans are willing to approve in its totality, which would authorize all types of travel before the year end.
With seven companies already authorized to start ferry trips between Florida and Havana in September (Havana Ferry Partners, Baja Ferries, United Caribbean Lines, Airline Brokers Co., International Port Corp, America Cruise Ferries from Puerto Rico and the Spanish Balearia), everything is pointing towards the first part of the high season in Cuba being successful.
With relations having become more flexible – and even before the opening of the embassies – Americans increased visits to the island by 55% compared with 2014, making 2015 the year of most American visits since the revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
Meanwhile operators are facing an upsurge of queries in Florida and increasing difficulty in booking accommodations. However, plans are underway and while the state hotel agency – Gaviota – has announced an agreement with Bouygues, the French construction company, to build three new hotels in the historic centre of Old Havana, Marriott International has reached an agreement with the government on business possibilities as soon as conditions are right for investment.
The United States officially reopened its embassy in Havana and the Secretary of State of the United States, John Kerry made an official visit to Cuba. The seven-story building was built in 1953 and closed in 1961 when the United States broke off ties with Havana. Months later it declared a blockade that has lasted until today, half a century later, and is considered the longest in history.
In his official speech, Kerry said: “Friends, we are gathered here today because our leaders, President Barack Obama and President Castro took a courageous decision: to stop being prisoners of history, focusing instead on opportunities for today and tomorrow.”
HAVANA, August 20 When, at the beginning of the 1990s, the US dollar was de-penalized and the Cuban government found its salvation in tourism, few could have imagined that a whole series of informal markets would develop around the inflow of foreign visitors.
The most notable impact of this phenomenon can be seen in Havana, Varadero and Matanzas, though all Cuban provinces – to a greater or lesser extent – have a tourist infrastructure that brings in revenues for the country and for private service providers. No few people have learned to “adapt” to this reality and make some money from visitors, offering transportation, a carwash, fruits, vegetables and other edibles, antiques, entertainment and many other services.
Santa Clara, for instance, is not the tourist destination par excellence. Here, privately operated hostels and restaurants take the lead in a context where State options are few and far between, generating sources of parallel employment as a result of their own, inherent limitations.
Emilia has been running a hostel in the downtown area for 3 years and depends on a minimum of four other people, those who buy the food and supplies for her business and satisfy the “whims” of the guests. From what she tells us, these “whims” can be anything from under-the-table tobacco, other smokeable products and, of course, “entertainment.”
“The next-door neighbors look after the cars at night. If they don’t, they get their tires burst before dawn,” Emilia sarcastically explains. “Another friend washes the cars, so they’re clean in the morning, and that’s all on the house.”
When one inquires about the best lodging options, the most frequent suggestion is to head over to Maritza’s, a 60-year-old woman who is always on the lookout for new tourists. “I help them, see. Because they’re not from here and they don’t know where anything is, where to stay or eat.”
The woman has a very humble appearance to her, even though she claims to make a minimum of 10 CUC (11 USD) a day through the commissions she receives by taking tourists to hostels and restaurants. On some occasions, tourists have invited her to dine with them. In those cases, she has asked for them to take the food to her in a doggy bag, as the restaurant owners aren’t too pleased with such invitations. “It’s not a part of the contract,” they explain.
“How do you manage to communicate with them?” I ask her. “It’s not that difficult. I make gestures and everything else is “good morning, my friend!””
The number of visitors hoping to get to know the socio-cultural peculiarities of the island and understand – if that’s possible – this outlandish bastion of tropical socialism, is increasing.
On Cuba Street, a stone’s throw away from where Maritza works, we run into Pierre at a lineup of people in front of a pizza parlor. This “friend” is a Quebecois who isn’t afraid of the heat. He walks around in shorts and thongs, dances with the first person to ask him and talks with everyone, including me.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” I ask him, pointing out the street corner where the Money Exchange is located and where we left Maritza and her zealous rivals behind. “No, it’s nothing like what happens at El Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba, or Trinidad,” he replies. “Things get really uncomfortable there, people even tug at your clothes.” Handling the hot pizza as best he can, he tells me that there are far more many beggars in other countries.
Many of the people who stalk tourists in Cuba, however, are not beggars, as Pierre seems to believe. There are those who are a bit more dispossessed, like Roberto, who lost his left leg and doesn’t work as a car washer for any hostel or business. He waits for a car to arrive and offers this service to the driver. He knows some people say yes out of pity, but he doesn’t care. His is an honest job and it puts food on his table.
At the entrance of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel we run into Muñeco, a kind of entertainer who is very popular in town, who assures us he is not a “music whore,” that he will sing to anyone, both Cubans and music-loving tourists like Pierre. “I don’t ask for anything. If they give me something, I thank them with another song,” he says.
Others, like Juanito, look for and sell books, pamphlets and three-peso bills (which are all the more valuable if they have Che Guevara’s signature on them). He is a sort of antiques dealer who travels from town to town collecting what he later sells to tourists.
“I don’t bother them, I do things in a more spontaneous fashion. I’ve had my best days just sitting here, at a park bench, after talking about politics, economics or baseball. They like that. Then you take something out and offer it to them, as though it weren’t that important,” he explains.
More and more are the locals who wait for a tourist bus to arrive and stalk the first foreigner they run into to offer them their services. The drivers and guides do not appear to be bothered by this and become involved in the transaction on occasion.
Some see these efforts as an unavoidable consequence of the need to survive, others look upon it as stains on the island’s landscape, at a time when the Cuba is becoming one of the most attractive destinations in the world.
HAVANA, August 19 It was mid-May, and independent tour consultant Frank Slater found himself leading his 22nd tour of Cuba, guiding a group at Vinca La Figia, Ernest Hemingway’s home from 1939 to 1960 in the village of San Francisco de Paula, about 9 miles outside Havana. Now a museum, it is a popular tourist stop for most visitors to Cuba.
Slater was serving as tour director on Friendly Planet’s nine-day people-to-people “Colors of Cuba” itinerary, similar to the company’s popular “Discover Havana” but a few days longer, with more stops.
Although Slater consults for multiple tour operators, this was his second Cuba tour in May with Friendly Planet, with two more slated for June. His travels in 22 years have taken him to 90 countries, and Cuba has become a favorite. He recently calculated that in the previous 30 months, “one out of every six days of my life has been in Cuba. I love it here. … I take photos on every trip, and I always see something new.”
Over his almost three years visiting the island, he has seen the Cuban market grow to the point that qualified tour guides are getting much harder to find. As more tour companies come onboard, he said, they are “driving up the need for more certified tour directors to accompany these tours, plus the additional need for Cuban professional guides.”
The most recent entrants in the crowded field of companies offering people-to-people programs include Central Holidays and Apple Vacations.
What has prepared Slater for his work in Cuba are his experiences from 20-plus years of working both as a tour guide (a local expert who leads groups around his or her own city or state) and as a tour director (an expert who accompanies groups from start to finish from city to city, state to state and country to country, working with tour operators).
From September to June, months when he generally is not traveling the world, he divides his time between his grandkids in Denver and serving as CEO of the Denver-based International Guide Academy (IGA), of which his son, Daniel, is president.
In business since 1973, the IGA has certified hundreds of guides and tour directors for placement with numerous tour operators whose itineraries span the globe.
The pace of travel to Cuba has accelerated since December, when President Obama loosened travel restrictions. That pace can be seen in visitor numbers, which in June alone topped 218,000, a 20.6% increase over June 2014, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information.
While the figures did not include a breakdown of U.S. visitors, the year is shaping up to be a record-breaker and is expected to top the record 3 million visitors last year.
“What has prepared me for work in Cuba is my knowledge of managing tours over the years,” Slater said. “I prepared for my tours in Cuba with extensive reading, website research and watching videos about Cuba to learn about the history, culture, food, geography, political situations and the like. This is what all tour managers should do when assigned a new location.”
U.S. tour operators generally contract with a Cuban tour company for the services of a local guide who accompanies the tour director and the group. Slater said one of the Cuban companies is San Cristobal, a government-run travel agency whose guides specialize in Old Havana and are particularly knowledgeable regarding the restorations and rebuilding projects in the old city.
“San Cristobal’s guides are great,” Slater said. “They all have gone through an extensive training program with their company for all of Cuba, not just Havana.”
What Slater looks for in a Cuban guide is “good teamwork, friendly, flexible and supportive of each other, and this has been the case with all the San Cristobal guides with whom I’ve worked.”
He said, “Our curriculum does change over the years in order to keep up to date with the changing demographics of travelers. About 20% of our instructors have worked in Cuba, so many of the examples in our training courses and classes are about activity and tours in Cuba.”
To meet growing demand, the IGA has added certification programs this year and will add still more in 2016.
“Additional classes and locations where our courses are taught have been added due to the increased demand from people looking to work as tour directors,” Slater said. “While a few have Cuba on their horizon as a place to work, their entry into the industry is not based solely on Cuba.”
Tour directors don’t teach the destination, he said, but they do help transition passengers from culture to culture on a multi-country trip.
“Most people are disposed to have a good time, to learn and take in new experiences,” Slater said. “The Cuba traveler in particular is well-educated, well-traveled and knows the guidelines, follows the rules and is eager to see everything.”
While travel to Cuba has been evolving quickly, Slater said he feels that other changes will come slowly.
“I suspect it will be a longer time than most think before all the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “Once lifted, I expect to see U.S. investments in Cuba, but I believe it will be over years.”
As the embargo is lifted, he said, “I believe that the Cuban people will see positive improvements in access to medicines, foods, the Internet, goods and services, which are now affected by the embargo.”
Several tour operators said they are seeing a shortage of tour guides in Cuba, “let alone good tour guides,” in the words of Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours USA.
“At Ya’lla, we have a pool of excellent guides, between eight and 10 of them, all young, dynamic and very dedicated, and we have never experienced that shortage,” Paldi said. “In peak season, when other companies were subjected to Spanish-speaking guides with an English translator, we kept running our operation with our guides both for groups and FITs, as we do all the time.”
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, agreed that shortages of Cuban tour guides, “especially high-quality guides,” are real.
“There also is a shortage of tour leaders who accompany the groups,” he said. “Both shortages are due to the increased demand from groups and new entrants into the marketplace.”
Insight Cuba’s longtime presence, said Popper, “gives us a leg up regarding access to the best resources, including restaurant reservations, hotel rooms, Cuban tour guides and U.S. tour leaders. We fortunately are not experiencing any shortages.”
Popper said that Cubans value established relationships with individuals and companies and provide the necessary resources to those companies first. Moreover, he said, the country’s leaders understand the burden that the increased demand has placed on the tourism infrastructure.
“Cuba is adapting, but training new guides and finding seasoned guides takes time,” he said. “They also need to experience leading groups of Americans so they can better understand the preferences of the American market.”
Friendly Planet launched its people-to-people programs to Cuba in 2011, and since then, “we’ve become experts at building relationships within the destination, from securing the best accommodations to sourcing local cultural experiences and activities,” said President Peggy Goldman.
These relationships have also enabled the company to work with well-informed tour directors and guides.
“We’ve not had any shortage of experts to lead our programs in Cuba, but I expect that newer entries to the market may face challenges due to increased competition,” Goldman said. “Many of our directors and guides come to us through referrals from existing tourism entities in Cuba as well as our association with the International Guide Academy.”
When Tauck launched its Cuba programs in 2012, the company used tour directors (or Tauck directors) already on staff who were fluent in Spanish.
“We’ve had no issues in sourcing local guides,” said Katharine Bonner, senior vice president. “There is a strong supply in Cuba who speak excellent English, and large numbers have university degrees in American history.”
She pointed out that being a local guide for American groups is a sought-after job in Cuba, as local guides can make more money than many other Cubans.
HAVANA, August 17 Santiago de Cuba is the 500-year-old city smells of fresh paint and varnish. Residents stroll along a recently completed harbour promenade under gleaming new streetlights, enjoying sea breezes while relaxing on newly installed metal benches.
Missing are the tourists. As foreign visitors flood Havana and a select group of other colonial cities and beach resorts, Cuba’s second-largest city is suffering a tourist drought.
Santiago saw less than a tenth of the tourist traffic in Havana last year and less than a 20th of the visitors to the beach resort of Varadero even amid large-scale government investment in renovating the city for its 500th anniversary this summer. Other Cuban cities are seeing similarly stagnant visitor numbers despite the dramatic surge in overall tourism set off by the announcement of detente between the U.S. and Cuba.
That’s raising concerns that a rising tide of tourist dollars will leave some areas of Cuba booming and others struggling against a backdrop of broader economic stagnation.
“They’re promoting Havana and the centre of the country but they’ve forgotten about Santiago,” said Gladys Domenech, who rents tourists a room in her home in the historic centre that features a terrace with a sweeping view of the Caribbean.
The city sits about 800 kilometres east of Havana on highways that narrow outside the capital to horrifically rutted roads clogged with horse carts, bicyclists and stray cows. The journey by road can last 15 hours, and far longer in Cuba’s notoriously unreliable and uncomfortable inter-city buses. Train and domestic plane tickets are virtually impossible to obtain without waiting hours in lines that may or may not end in satisfaction. There are only three flights a week from the U.S.
Cruise ships provide a promising new potential source of visitors, although dockings here remain relatively rare.
“It’s tough for those who go to Havana and want to come here,” said Virgen Maria Jerez, owner of an elegant private restaurant near Domenech’s home in central Santiago. “Transport is vital and we’re disconnected.”
Those who do reach Santiago find a city rich with history but hampered by what visitors and residents alike call substandard accommodations, few high-quality restaurants and a lack of fun things to do at night. Cuban officials say Santiago has roughly 1,500 of Cuba’s 60,000 hotel rooms, far fewer than it needs.
Santiago’s promoters lament that tourists are missing out on the city’s rich Afro-Cuban culture, its meandering streets, colonial architecture and its prized role as the home of Cuban musical genres such as trova and son.
“It’s a treasure that we have to show off,” said Vicente Gonzalez, head of Santiago’s Center for Cultural and Natural Underwater Heritage.
Along with the new oceanfront malecon and the restoration of homes in the city’s historic centre, the Cuban government has built a new theatre and an artisanal brewpub as part of a broader reconstruction and improvement effort that began after Hurricane Sandy devastated the city in 2012.
Another potential draw, particularly for American tourists, is the memorial to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who fought on the city’s San Juan Hill in one of the most famous battles of the Spanish-American War that freed Cuba from Spanish rule.
But virtually every tourist establishment in the city closes at 10 p.m., leaving the streets dark and silent.
Last year, Santiago had 297,918 visitor-days, an industry measure of the number of tourists who arrived in the city multiplied by the number of days each stayed. That was a 6 per cent rise over 2013, but the overall number remains tiny compared to flow of tourists in Havana, which had nearly 3 million visitor days, or Varadero with 7.8 million, according to Jose Luis Perello, a professor of tourism at the University of Havana.
Some advocates of U.S. travel to Cuba says they are optimistic about Santiago’s future, particularly since American tourists remain barred from pure tourism and must participate mostly in cultural or educational activities well-suited to historic sites like Santiago.
“The city and the region have much to offer. It’s just a question of time before tourism in Santiago starts growing,” said Tom Popper, head of Insight Cuba, one of the largest operators of U.S. tours to Cuba.
“U.S. tourists can go to any part of the Caribbean for the beaches, but what they want to see is the Cuba that they haven’t been able to see for generations.”
HAVANA, August 1 – As tourism flourishes in Cuba the island is emerging as a destination for the LGBT community and a travel agency specializing in packages for those customers is already in operation.
Pioneering the business are the owners of Mi Cayito Cuba, a Web-based intermediary between “gay-friendly Cuban private initiative and clients around the world,” company director Alain Castillo, a Cuban who lives in Madrid, told EFE.
“The island has great potential as a space for coexistence,” said the 35-year-old entrepreneur who wants to contribute to “the visibility and improvement of the LGBT collective” in the country.
“We are open to everyone, we believe in a free and tolerant environment where respect is valued,” he said.
Located east of Havana, Mi Cayito is probably the only gay beach in the Cuba and for that reason Castillo thought it was an appropriate name for his company, founded a year ago.
“It is vacation time,” the promotion posted on social media say. “It is Cuba time. The new gay paradise.”
Most popular destinations so far for Mi Cayito Cuba’s clients are Havana, the verdant heaven of Viñales in the western province of Pinar del Rio, and Varadero beach, Castillo said.
Mi Cayito Cuba’s Web site is available only in Spanish, but Castillo said it has been visited by clients in Germany, the United States, Russia, Spain and Latin America who have the choice of tours like “Havana Gay” or a service of personalized guides.
More than 2 million foreign tourists have come to Cuba so far this year.
“Changes in Cuba have become an incentive and have increased demand,” Castillo said, adding that his company expects a flood of U.S. visitors as a result of the thawing of relations between Washington and Havana and the restoration of diplomatic relations after a break of more than 50 years.
Cuba has not always been so welcoming to LGBT people. In the decades following the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, the Cuban government derided, persecuted and jailed gays and lesbians.
In a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro acknowledged that he bore ultimate responsibility for the persecution and expressed regret about the policy.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba in the 1990s and the island’s free public health service began offering sex-reassignment operations in 2008.
Cuban authorities are targeting more than $2 billion in foreign investment on an annual basis to bolster growth after five decades of global isolation, Soria said in a Bloomberg Television interview.
As part of the plan to modernize Cuba, the country is seeking to increase the number of hotel rooms and improve old infrastructure, said Soria, who also oversees Spain’s energy and industry sectors. He said he sees opportunities for Spanish companies specializing in those areas.
“The Cuban government told me of the objective for 30,000 new tourist beds,” he said. “Apart from tourism, they will need generating plants, new electricity grids, new infrastructure, roads and airports, and Spanish companies are well situated.”
Some of Spain’s biggest travel companies already operate in Cuba, including Iberia airlines, which covers the Madrid-Havana route, as well as hotel giants NH Hotel Group SA and RIU Hotels SA. Spanish exports to Cuba totaled 75.7 million euros ($83 million) in May, according to the government in Madrid.
“Despite the multiple historical and cultural ties between the two countries, diplomatic relationships with Cuba have been rather frosty for years,” said Angel Talavera, an economist with Oxford Economics in London. “This may signal a change in attitude from the Spanish government, probably concerned about losing investment opportunities and economic influence in favor of America.”
Earlier this month, Soria traveled to Cuba on an official visit accompanied by Spanish diplomats and representatives of companies including Iberdrola SA, Obrascon Huarte Lain SA and Ferrovial SA. The trip to Spain’s former colony coincided with the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Simultaneously, on multiple continents, the brilliant Germans, Turks, Argentinians, Mexicans, and other Americans at the Havana guesthouse where we were all staying had hatched the unique idea that they needed to get to Cuba before Starbucks, Chipotle and Urban Outfitters do. One local guide claimed that U.S. tourism was up 36 percent from December, when Raul Castro and President Obama become BFFs.
My husband, Jon, as a child on a family vacation, visited Cuba before the island’s last big change. Fulgencio Batista was the dictator, the American mob ran the hotel casinos, and Fidel Castro seemed like an annoyance rather than a mortal threat.
Jon had long wanted to return. He suddenly decided now was the time, before Cuba changes. Good idea, but arranging the details wasn’t easy.
Despite America’s new opening, we had to book our trip with a tour organizer (Australian), change our money into Canadian Loonies, and fly through Cancun because of America’s embargo restrictions that presidential aspirant Marco Rubio thinks are so helpful.
Once on the island, no one took credit cards, toilet paper was not guaranteed, soap was a luxury and, most appalling to us first-worlders, there was virtually no Internet. When I did weasel my way into a fancy hotel “business center,” the guy at the next computer terminal was from Northeast Philly.
Except for the enterprising native who unsuccessfully tried to mug my husband (who also can’t get his wallet out of his jeans pocket), Cubans were welcoming, even when they had nothing to sell us. Most Cubans don’t have anything to sell tourists, though there are an amazing number of people who claim to work in cigar factories and just happen to have a few “extra” Cohibas.
My fellow Pennsylvanians can instinctively relate to Cubans because their country also sells all its liquor in government stores, the roads are full of potholes, and everyone is madly preparing for Pope Francis’ visit. It’s just that in Cuba, the state controls almost everything, including the newspapers, where I could be a cartoonist as long as I drew Raul as the handsome, brilliant genius that he is.
While in Havana, we stayed near the historic square where slaves were once sold. It’s now lined with a restaurant with tablecloths, an excellent coffee shop and a microbrewery — which could use a brewer from Philly’s Fishtown to help with its recipes.
Fortunately, there are few cars, because the ones they have are 60 years old, belch pollution, and can barely pass down the narrow streets. The cars are, however, luscious, and made me wish Detroit would return to some of those flamboyant styles. If Cubans can have tail fins, why can’t we?
While Detroit carmakers are forced by our embargo to stick to the mainline, Chinese carmakers are busily peddling their fin-less “Geelys,” most recently 719 of them, to the Cuban car rental market for tourists. Since many actual Cubans, especially outside Havana, still get around on horse-drawn carts (including trotting along on the one main “interstate”), there would seem to be room for growth. Missiles are not OK in Cuba; a growing Chinese market apparently is.
The historic architecture is beautiful but decayed — severely decayed — with trees growing out of balustraded balconies and interior stairways that would even make Pennsylvania inspectors take notice. Many families live packed in these potentially lucrative buildings that will all be renovated soon.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Raul Castro are facing the same problem: How do you make way for the new and wealthy without displacing the old and poor? It will be interesting to see if the Castros, whose rule depends on total control, can do any better than Philadelphia has.
Personally, I doubt it, as the U.S. restores its diplomatic relations with Cuba and the tsunami of Americans joins all the other world’s tourists making plans to see the “real” Cuba. Before it changes.
HAVANA ,July 9 (AP Peter Orsi) Cruise ship tourism to Cuba spiked more than five-fold over the last three years and is up even higher so far in 2015, government officials reported Thursday.
In a statement published on the state-run website Cubadebate, the Transportation Ministry said the number of cruise ship port calls rose from 24 in 2012 to 139 in 2014, while visits by cruise passengers saw a similar jump from 6,770 to 37,519 during the same period.
Already this year there have been 174 port calls and 62,183 passenger visits through May, according to the ministry’s statistics.
The statement called the cruise industry an “important element of tourism development for the country,” and said further growth is expected.
The report comes two days after U.S. cruise company Carnival announced a plan to begin running ships to the Caribbean island through its new brand, fathom, which focuses on trips in which passengers sail to a destination in order to volunteer there.
Amid a gradual thaw between Cold War foes Washington and Havana, Carnival has secured permission from the U.S. Treasury Department but is still awaiting approval from the Cuban government.
The Cuban Transportation Ministry said growth during the last three years “could have been even greater if not for the inhuman measures imposed on us by the U.S. blockade (embargo) which substantially hurts maritime activity” — a signal that Havana may look favorably on Carnival’s proposal and U.S. cruise ships in general.
Carnival hopes to begin the trips in May and says it would be the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the advent of the embargo, which went into full effect in 1962.
Cruise ships dock regularly in the port of Havana during the winter high season, disgorging hundreds of travelers at a time into the adjacent colonial quarter.
The Transportation Ministry also cited Cienfuegos, Santiago and other coastal points as centers of cruise tourism, and highlighted the Isle of Youth as an opportunity for possible future expansion of the sector.
American tourism to Cuba remains illegal under U.S. law, although Washington has relaxed rules in recent years to allow ever-greater numbers of U.S. visitors on cultural, academic, religious and other types of exchanges considered “purposeful travel.”
Carnival’s weeklong cruises aboard the 710 passenger-capacity Adonia would offer legal “people-to-people” trips in which travelers spend most of the day involved in cultural activities in order to conform to U.S. regulations.
Most Cuban ports are not able to accommodate larger vessels that can hold tens of thousands of people. In Havana, an automobile tunnel that traverses the mouth of the bay prevents the city from dredging deeper to receive lower-drafting ships.
A recently completed upgrade at Mariel, an industrial port about a 45-minute drive west of Havana, could be a possibility if Cuba ever looks to receive the bigger cruise vessels.
HAVANA, July 8 Officials at Caribbean tourist destinations popular with Americans have been up in arms over the budding relationship between Washington and Havana. Opening the island to American tourists, the officials say, would decimate tourism-dependent economies in places like cash-strapped Puerto Rico.
They now have even more reason for worry.
On Tuesday, Carnival Cruise Lines said that it was trying to get the Cuban government’s permission to host cruises leaving from Miami then sailing to the island nation 90 miles south. If it can convince Cuban President Raúl Castro to allow the trips, Carnival would be the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the 1960 trade embargo. The trips wouldreportedly cost around $3,000 per person, and the company hopes to start the voyages in May 2017.
Last week, Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, began a push for the Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative, meant to boost U.S. travel to destinations in the region that aren’t Cuba.
“If we continue to operate business as usual, and we all draw from the same pie, and Cuba is in the equation … there will be serious economic and employment consequences,” Comito told the Associated Press.
Since announcing the renewal of diplomatic ties, the number of American tourists planning to travel to Cuba exploded. According to a March report in the New York Times, bookings jumped 57 percent for one tour operator in January. In February, they increased 187 percent. In March, they went up nearly 250 percent.
The challenge Cuban tourism presents to its neighbors has been on full display in recent days. Puerto Rico, an American commonwealth that relied on tourism for 7 percent of its gross national product in 2009, admitted it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Pleas for assistance from the White House and Congress fell on deaf ears.
San Juan insists tourism is a key part of its plan to reinvent its economy. A rival about 900 miles closer complicates this strategy.
“We’re going to have to develop some sort of credible strategy to deal with lack of economic growth,” Sergio Marxuach, policy director at Center for the New Economy in San Juan, told Foreign Policy in a recent interview. “Well-thought economic growth — that’s the most difficult thing.”
The Dominican Republic has also expressed concerns about Cuba’s burgeoning tourist industry. “We are closely monitoring the process,” Simón Suárez, president of the Dominican Republic’s hotel and restaurant association, Asonahores, told Fox News Latino in May. “We can already see that there will be an effect on the Dominican Republic because of the demand by Americans who want to go to Cuba.”
Cuba needs the money just as much as its neighbors. Tourism generates about $2.6 billion a year; annual GDP there was about $77.15 billion in 2013.
The coming arrival of American tourists harkens back to a dark chapter in Cuban history. With the blessing of the island’s leadership, American crime families set up gambling operations on the island in the 1920s and 1930s. (For a quick primer, watch The Godfather: Part II). When Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro ousted President Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he condemned the poker houses and forced the mob out.
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