Varadero, Cuba’s star beach, is a refuge from the virus

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In normal times, it would have already welcomed a million foreign tourists this year. Varadero, Cuba’s flagship beach, receives its first non-Cuban visitors in seven months on Sunday, wanting to be a safe destination in the face of the pandemic.

“Varadero is really a destination that has all the conditions to be a refuge for holidaymakers,” praises AFP Ivis Fernandez, responsible for tourism in Matanzas, Varadero province, 140 kilometers east of La Havana.

Out of 52 hotels, only four are operating so far, with Cuban tourists. Its 21 kilometers of beach, whose white sand and transparent waters make it regularly in the top 10 of the most beautiful beaches in the world on the Tripadvisor site, are deserted.

At the dawn of an uncertain high season (November-April), Varadero has modest objectives, hoping to receive “around 2,000” foreign tourists by the end of December, indicates Ivis Fernandez.

“We have opened up rooms for a dozen hotels for sale,” a “very low” figure, she admits.

A highly anticipated British tourist plane will be the first to land on Sunday, after seven months of border closures.

Health protocols

The coronavirus pandemic, which has been added to a strengthening of US sanctions, has dealt a severe blow to the island, whose tourism, one of the main economic engines with $ 2,645 billion in revenue in 2019, was already in recoil.

Between January and March 2020, while the borders were still open, Cuba only received 189,466 tourists, a third (36.3%) of arrivals in the first quarter of 2019.

The country of 11.2 million people appears to have controlled the spread of the disease with 6,534 cases, including 128 deaths, far fewer than its neighbors in the Caribbean and Latin America.

To revive its economy, the island opened in July its “cayos”, paradisiacal islets bordering its coasts, to foreign tourists, who had to arrive by direct flights and could not leave to visit the rest of Cuba.

Even though these visitors were few in number, their coming made it possible to test strict health protocols that will be applied in Varadero.

PCR test on arrival, regular temperature control, limited capacity, elimination of the free buffet: these are the rules.

“As soon as we entered the hotel, they took our temperature and poured liquid” disinfectant on our hands, says Cuban Deysi Guerra, 49, at the Sol Palmeras hotel, of the Spanish chain. Melia. “We see how they clean the tables, everything, with chlorine, to protect well” from the virus.

At the same establishment, Orlando Coro, 33, is spending a vacation with his wife. “The tables are separated, there is a good cleaning, so far everything is brilliant”, rejoices this construction employee, even if the compulsory wearing of the mask in the common areas “is a little inconvenient”.

“Very big challenge”

On site, a medical team – doctor, nurse and epidemiologist – is there permanently.

“As soon as the hotels start to fill up, we will have a reinforcement of the medical services to avoid any problem,” promises Dr. Ucayali Gonzalez, 47, at the Melia Internacional hotel.

In this period of pandemic, Cuba is not alone in betting on an image of a safe destination to keep tourists coming back.

“Out of all the countries I know (…), I am sure that Cuba is the best prepared, it has done things better”, assures the general manager of Sol Palmeras, the Spaniard Tomeu Alcina.

For tourism expert José Luis Perello, beaches like Varadero will be, until a vaccine is found, “the safest destinations”, because outdoor tourism is less risky than that of the cities.

And “74% of Cuba’s tourist facilities are on the beach”.

But, he warns, Cuba counts Canada, Russia, Germany, Italy and France as main tourist markets, with alarming figures of cases and deaths linked to the coronavirus.

“It is a very big challenge that we are taking up”, admitted the Minister of Tourism Juan Carlos Garcia, announcing the reopening of all the airports of the country, except that of Havana, which could do so in early November.

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