The mojito effect? Cuba seems immune to the Caribbean tourism slump

If America's spy satellites are trained on Cuba at this very moment, they're likely to reveal local tourism officials puffing away on celebratory Cohibas. The reason? While tourism is down big-time across the rest of the Caribbean, tourist arrivals to the Communist isle are up 3.1 percent, year to date. Compare that with Bermuda, Anguilla and the Bahamas, which all have suffered double-digit declines. In fact, Cuba is now the No. 2 Caribbean destination in terms of tourist arrivals after the Dominican Republic, where arrivals fell 2.4 percent year to date.

Though Cuba is renowned for its broad beaches, '50s cars and soulful music, it's not like other Caribbean nations are exactly lacking in charm. What Cuba now offers, though, is a really good deal for recession-weary sun-seekers, says the Caribbean Tourism Organization's Winfield Griffith. "I think Cuba has always been more of a competitive destination in terms of price and value for the money," says Griffith, the organization's director of research and information management. "There is a wide interest in Cuba among Canadians and Europeans."
Canada sends more tourists to Cuba than any other nation, followed by Italy and France, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. That the nation Fidel Castro took over in 1959 relies so heavily on our neighbor to the north has turned out to be a blessing for Cuba because Canada has weathered the global recession better than many other countries. It's GDP, for instance, shrank just 5.4 percent in the first quarter, compared to the 5.7 percent drop in the U.S. "Canadians have not been as hit by the economic trauma," says Griffith.

And with Canadian websites currently advertising a one-week hotel stay in Varadero -- Cuba's biggest beach resort -- for C$425 ($396) including round-trip airfare from Toronto, travel agents won't have have much trouble filling the planes.

Of course, most Americans, unless they're journalists, academics or humanitarian workers, are still prohibited from visiting Cuba, thanks to the U.S. embargo that began in the early 1960s. President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the country in April of this year, allowing unlimited visits. However, Americans not of Cuban descent still face the restrictions.

But many observers believe the Obama Administration will be less vigorous about prosecuting Americans who defy the travel ban. What's more, there's talk that the House could pass a bill to lift the travel restrictions for all Americans in the House by year-end, according to The New York Times.

While the rest of the Caribbean is open to Americans, a self-imposed travel ban of sorts prompted by the recession has kept many Americans and other nationals from visiting the region. Tourist arrivals to the Bahamas, home of the mega-resort Atlantis, were down 14.1 percent as of Sept. 17. And the British Virgin Islands saw a 25 percent drop, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Those numbers have got to hurt, considering that the region is one of the most tourism-dependent in the world, according to the Jamaica Observer. The industry's contribution to the region's GDP is considered to be about $40 billion, or nearly 15 percent of the Caribbean's total GDP, the paper says. What's more, it represents 12.9 percent of total employment.

Cuba isn't the only Caribbean country in the plus column. Jamaica's tourist arrivals have risen 3.4 percent, as of Sept. 17, and Guyana's are up 6.4 percent. But Cuba's 1.57 million tourists far outstripped the figures for those countries, year to date. The only country with more tourists was the Dominican Republic, with 2.54 million tourists, though that's down year to date.

For the rest of the region, Griffith says his organization sees signs of a recovery, but it's feeble for now. "Most of the indicators are still negative, of course," he says. "They're just less negative than they were this same time last year."

As for Cuba, it's unclear whether it's truly ready for tourism prime-time. The 42,000-square mile country (the size of Pennsylvania) has only about 50,000 hotel rooms, or the equivalent of what can be found in Miami-Dade County, according to a report in Hispanic Business.

Plus, the country isn't exactly a model of Democratic ideals. Now ruled by Fidel's brother Raul Castro, Cuba continues to punish citizens who speak out against the government, including one man who talked about hunger on the island to a film crew. Despite the easing of some policies under Raul Castro, life for ordinary Cubans remains tough, with the average wage equaling about $20 a month, according to the BBC. Some would argue that its citizens' meager living conditions are what make Cuba a cheap travel destination.

But tourism operators, at least ones from outside the U. S., say there are lots of reasons tourism in the "Pearl of the Antilles" is holding up. "Cuban cities feel like cities in a foreign country -- no McDonald's, no huge supermarkets, but instead fresh produce markets, European and Chinese vehicles, and old buildings in elegant styles," says Kate Daley of Canada's Real Cuba travel agency. "Tourists feel like they are in a foreign country, one with a past." And those free-flowing mojitos surely don't hurt either.

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