Skift Take

Omicron flareups are one thing, but the travel bans for U.S. citizens put in place under President Trump and remaining thereunder Joe Biden, for the most part, are not doing Cuba's tourism industry any favors.

Cuba, unlike some of its Caribbean peers, saw a decrease in international tourists in 2021 as the country welcomed a little more than 570,000 overseas visitors last year, almost 40 percent of 2020’s figure.

What was the biggest reason for the decline? A surge in Covid cases in April 2021 led to the government bringing back a mandatory quarantine period for visitors and a restriction on international flights that lasted until November. But even before the pandemic, Cuba had already seen a drop in international tourists as the country welcomed 4.7 million overseas in 2018 and 4.2 million the next year.

Cuba’s recovery is far behind those made by nearby countries. Mexico welcomed 31 million international visitors in 2021, a 28 percent over 2020, while 2021 tourist arrival numbers for the Dominican Republic hit 77 percent of 2019 figures. Meanwhile, tourism officials in Panama expect the country to attract 2.3 million visitors this year, a number that would represent a full recovery.

While the measures the government enacted to stop the spread of Covid are a big reason why Cuba hasn’t attracted as many visitors as other Caribbean nations, there are others.

One of them is sanctions that the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump placed on Cuba, which have continued under the Biden administration. Michael Zuccato, the general manager of California-based Cuba Travel Services, said the measures made it difficult for Americans to pay for lodging or book certain properties — in addition to causing flight prices to jump. A little more than 7,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2021, an enormous fall from the 58,000 Cuba’s Oficina Nacional de Estadística e Información recorded for the previous year.

Zuccato cited a ban on U.S. airlines flying to all Cuban airports outside of Havana as one measure that hurt Cuba’s tourism industry. “Everyone must fly to Havana and book intra-country transfers. This can be costly and complicated for regular travelers,” he said. 

“If the Biden Administration allows flights into the provinces, ticket prices would (decrease) and more people could afford to visit family and travel to the island.”

Cuba also saw widescale protests in July 2020, the first to hit the island since the 1990s, following the death of a 27-year-old Afro-Cuban named Hansel Hernández at the hands of Havana police. Additional protests sparked by anger over food shortages and inflation took place the following year. So has the upheaval discouraged potential visitors?

“It is something to monitor. One may think the narrative that spread about Cuba is not favorable for a holiday destination,” said Cuban economist Ricardo Torres Pérez. But he also warned that other factors — including the shutdown of places frequently visited by tourists — have had a heavily impact on tourism.

Some believe there’s another factor. Cuban economist and professor Elias Amor attributes the country’s struggles to the government’s failed tourism approach. 

“The excessive inference of the state, its absolute domain over the small private sector and a very deficient touristic marketing strategy explain the failure of the model at large,” Amor said. 

As for the future, Tourism Minister Juan Carlos García Granda, said he expects the island to attract at least 2.5 million tourists in 2022 and 6 million by 2030. Meanwhile, Zuccato has also expressed optimism about Cuba’s tourism industry making a strong recovery.

“We have a positive outlook for the 4th quarter of 2022 and project the demand to be strong through 2024,” Zuccato said.

But the country has a lot of work to do in order to hit its targets.  

“Only 86,000 visitors arrived in January, slightly above 1995’s tally,” Torres Pérez said. ” In other words, we have a very long road ahead.”

Tags: caribbean, covid-19, cuba, latin america, reopening, reopening travel

Photo credit: A street in Havana Nathan Laurell / Flickr