Closed for almost eight months, Havana reopens its doors to foreign tourists, but they still have to be convinced to come back: Cuba, in search of foreign currency, is banking on its good results in the face of the pandemic.
“It’s a big challenge,” admits Francisco Camps, deputy general manager of the Spanish hotel chain Melia in Cuba, where it has been present for 30 years with 34 establishments, of which only 10 are operating so far.
Five international airports in the country reopened in mid-October to charter flights.
But the jewel of the island was missing: Havana, whose old-fashioned charm and historic center classified as a Unesco heritage attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. A step that many tourists, especially Europeans, do not want to miss.
“Havana is important because it is the airport for regular flights, which allows connections with Europe,” said Mr. Camps. Closed to commercial flights since March 24, it reopened on Sunday, in time for the high season (November-April).
“It also allows a flow of visitors who do not only come to see the city but also make circuits, a tourism different from that of beach” … and more spend.
Financially, there is an emergency: deprived of this economic engine ($ 2.645 billion in 2019), Cuba has had to drastically reduce its imports, which usually cover 80% of its food needs.
Everywhere, queues in front of supermarkets are getting longer, with shortages of coffee, milk, toilet paper …
“The shortage that we are going through is quite significant, I believe it is the strongest since the decade of the 1990s”, the famous Special Period caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, notes the economist Ricardo Torres, of the University of Havana.
Precisely, he recalls, tourism is “the sector that had managed to get Cuba out of the depths of (this) economic crisis” which traumatized a generation of inhabitants.
But opening its doors is also a danger.
On flights of British and Russian tourists who recently arrived to the beaches, several cases of coronavirus were detected, forcing the isolation of dozens of travelers.
“It is undoubtedly a great risk”, admitted Professor Francisco Duran, chief epidemiologist of the Ministry of Health. “I think it is necessary that our population is aware of this, so that they protect themselves and the people who arrive”.
To reassure, the island relies on a slogan: “Cuba, safe destination”. Its infection figures are among the lowest in the Americas, with 7,725 cases for 11.2 million people.
Its protocol provides that tourists take a PCR test (charged $ 30) on arrival and avoid going out until the results, 24 hours later, then a permanent medical presence at the hotel, thanks to the health network of 82 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants (compared to 32 in France and 26 in the United States).
“The effective epidemic control strategy is an asset for Cuba” because “tourists in the coming months will seek safe destinations, from a health point of view,” said Ricardo Torres.
So, “yes, we must protect people’s lives but we must also revive our economy which is on its knees”.
Telecommuting at the beach
The country hosted at the beginning of November a seminar of 150 German tourist agents. The Prime Minister himself, Manuel Marrero, went to meet them.
But several European countries are closed due to the pandemic. Canada, the main emitter of tourists to Cuba, imposes a quarantine on return.
Careful, Air France will not resume its commercial links with the island until December, two per week against one per day previously.
In general, the World Tourism Organization does not anticipate a rebound in the sector before the end of 2021.
Hence the need to be creative: Melia now offers long stays (two to three months) to Canadian tourists wanting to escape the winter.
Even more astonishing, its offer of teleworking … from Cuba.
“An obviously important element is to guarantee connectivity”, in a country where the Internet is often slow and unstable, explains Francisco Camps. “So for each of the five pilot hotels selected, we have acquired a gigabyte of bandwidth”.
Telework at the beach: other Caribbean destinations (Barbados, Bermuda …) have had the same idea. The Hyatt hotel chain also offers it in Costa Rica or the Bahamas.
But Melia wants to be “realistic” and will keep closed in 2021 a third of its Cuban hotels, not hoping for a return to normal for “at least two years”.