HAVANA – Cuba’s government predicted on Thursday that harsher sanctions by the United States, particularly a ban on cruise travel to the Caribbean island, will cause tourist arrivals to fall this year by more than 10 percent to 4.3 million.
That new projection is around 16 percent lower than the initial target set by Havana, which said it expected to attract 5.1 million tourists in 2019.
The US government’s decision to not allow cruise ships to travel to the Communist-ruled island from American ports will affect “more than 560,000 Americans through the end of the year,” Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said in a report presented to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel during parliamentary sessions.
Cuba has received more than 2.4 million tourists thus far in 2019, but the island saw a steep 20 percent drop in tourist arrivals in June and is expecting a similar result in July, Marrero said.
The new US measures, which were imposed in early June and included a ban on travel to the island via private planes and yachts and cruise ships, tightened the decades-old US embargo on the island.
The new sanctions by US President Donald Trump’s administration are aimed at preventing the “the Cuban regime and its military services, which control the tourism industry in Cuba, from having access to US dollars,” a State Department spokeswoman said then.
Between January and March, the US ranked second behind Canada in terms of numbers of tourists to Cuba (257,500 visitors, not including those of Cuban origin), according to figures from the island’s Tourism Ministry.
Roughly 55 percent of those US tourists arrived in Cuba on cruise ships, a method of travel that rose 48 percent in the first quarter relative to the same period of 2018.
Marrero noted that commercial flights, which resumed after US-Cuban bilateral relations were fully restored in 2015, were not affected by the latest US restrictions. But he cautioned that those arrivals also could fall due to the “fears created by the measures.”
The minister said several tourist platforms are no longer listing many Cuban hotels, while other properties that have not yet been targeted could be similarly blacklisted in the future if they are sued under Title III of the US’s 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
Title III, which allows US citizens (mainly Cuban-Americans) and corporations to sue entities that have been “trafficking” in property that was seized by the island’s government on or after Jan. 1, 1959, had not gone into effect until May 2 due to rolling six-month waivers.
Trump, however, allowed waivers to Title III to expire as part of efforts to bring about political change on the Communist-ruled island.
Even so, Marrero said hotel groups operating on the island, including Spain’s Melia, Iberostar and Barcelo, have been “firm in their commitment to Cuba.”
Tourism is Cuba’s second-leading source of hard currency after the export of professional services, accounting for 10 percent of the island’s gross domestic product and providing employment to roughly 500,000 people.
More than 4.7 million foreign visitors arrived on the island in 2018, up 1.3 percent from the year before and a new record.