Big hopes for Cuba's tourism industry
HAVANA, Cuba, March 25, 2009 - The growth of tourism in Cuba in the first two months of this year has led to renewed hopes for the industry, once regarded as the engine of development on the island because of its rapid rise in the 1990s and its impact on the rest of the economy.
The tourism industry expanded by 5.2 per cent in January and February compared with the same period last year, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced. This is good news for Cuba, which is recovering from the devastation caused by three major hurricanes in 2008, at a time of global economic crisis with - so far - undetermined consequences.
"Tourism could take on its role as an economic engine again, if restrictions on travel by US citizens to Cuba are lifted," said economist Pavel Vidal in an article for the Economics Press Service, a publication of the IPS Havana bureau.
The US Congress recently passed a law permitting Cubans living in the United States to visit their family members in Cuba once a year. The number of flights to this Caribbean island nation is thus expected to rise, after falling by about 75 per cent since 2004 in the wake of travel restrictions imposed by former US President George W Bush.
At least one million tourists from the United States are predicted to arrive on the island in the first year alone, if the ban on travel to Cuba by US citizens, enforced since the 1960s as part of the economic embargo, is eliminated.
In 2008, over 2.3 million tourists came to Cuba, an increase of 9.3 per cent over the previous year, while gross income rose by 13.5 percent. This growth, after two years of decline, was an exceptional result in the Caribbean region.
According to a report by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) comparing the industry's performance in 2007 and 2008, 11 out of its 26 member countries experienced a decline or stagnation in the number of foreign visitors to their shores.
In December 2008, the statistics confirmed a fall in the number of countries receiving over one million tourists a year, like the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, which both reported declines of more than two per cent, while the Dominican Republic received an identical number of visitors as in 2007. However, Jamaica experienced growth of 3.9 per cent.
The CTO says that in the short term, several factors could influence the development of the vitally important tourism sector, including the global financial crisis and its effects in the United States, which is the main source of tourists, as well as unstable oil prices and the weakness of the dollar relative to other currencies. (Adapted from IPS)