© REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

With gorgeous beaches and a unique Caribbean flair, Cuba is a popular vacation destination. After nearly two years of strict restrictions due to the pandemic, a drastic reduction in flights to Cuba, and a U.S. ban on most travels, the island’s borders are open for visitors!

After vaccinating most of its people with a home-grown COVID-19 vaccine, Cuba’s border restrictions have eased, allowing them to welcome back overseas visitors and begin revitalizing their tourist industry.

Drastic safety measures implemented by the former U.S. administration have hobbled the business and left it trailing behind regional competitors such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Cancun.

As of last month, Cuba requires visitors to carry proof of vaccination or a recent PCR to enter the country, replacing what were previously among the strictest protocols in the Caribbean, involving a quarantine period and multiple PCR tests.

A fully vaccinated population will prove a key selling point for an island already well-regarded for its safety, beaches, and turquoise waters, said Francisco Camps, who supervises Spanish firm Sol Melia’s 32 hotels in Cuba.

“Cuba will be one of the safest sanitary destinations and we believe that we can reach visitations similar to 2019 by the end of next year,” he said.

Cuba’s vaccines are currently under review by the World Health Organization, and most trial data has yet to be peer-reviewed. But among countries with more than one million people, Cuba is vaccinating faster than any other, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

The government says the pace is paying dividends, with COVID-19 cases and deaths falling off at least 80 percent since their peak mid-summer. At least 90 percent of the population has received at least one dose of one of the country’s three-dose homegrown vaccines.

“We are in a favorable moment as we begin to recover our customs, to be able to visit relatives and go on vacation, as well as improve economic activity,” Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia said this month.

The pandemic closed schools, entertainment venues, and restaurants as it reduced the all-important tourism industry to near-zero, exacerbating an economic crisis that has left residents short of food and medicine.

Cuba received more than four million tourists in 2019, contributing 10.6 percent to gross domestic product (GDP) and much more through supply chains and informal economic activity.

But this year, just 200,000 guests have arrived, and only another 100,000 are expected, Minister Garcia said.

Cuban economist Ricardo Torres said those numbers meant a “devastating” 92 percent drop in tourism this year, compared to 2019.

“So we are talking about next year for any real tourism recovery…which generates a knock-on effect and so is decisive to economic recovery,” said Torres, a visiting professor at American University in Washington.

The U.S. embargo sharply limits trade with Cuba, so the country depends heavily on flows of foreign currency and basic goods that travellers and the Cuban diaspora bring to the island.

Despite mounting optimism as tourism resumes, officials have cautioned economic recovery will be more gradual than initially thought, following a sharp drop of 10.9 percent last year and another 2 percent through June.

The Varadero beach resort is already partially open, including for the domestic market, for which it is the favourite destination.

And life is slowly returning to the colonial district of Havana as it prepares to once more welcome visitors after a 19-month hiatus.

“Old Havana has been sad all this time because there have been no tourists,” said Ernesto Alejandro Labrada, the owner of the Antojos restaurant, now packed with Cubans enjoying a meal before the visitors return.

(Source: Reuters)

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