JARDINES DEL REY ARCHIPELAGO, Cuba – At first glance, the scene is utterly divorced from the reality of 2020: several people sunbathe on the beach, others laugh with cocktails in hand and a couple walks arm-in-arm near the ocean on this archipelago off the northern coast of Cuba.
All with faces uncovered, these visitors, including many Russian citizens, are enjoying a few days of respite from freezing weather back home and the pandemic still raging across much of the planet.
The only reminder of COVID-19 in this sun-and-sand paradise are the face masks worn by hotel employees, who strictly adhere to health protocols that include taking people’s temperature and disinfecting their hands and footwear upon entry to those establishments.
Promising both idyllic surroundings and impeccable service and biosafety, Cuba is looking to foreign tourism to help revive an economy that was struggling prior to this year and has been plunged into a deeper crisis by the coronavirus.
Lisa, a 30-year-old tourist from Russia’s vast and notoriously frigid Sakha region, said Cuba seemed like the best place to escape the cold while soaking in salsa rhythms.
“We couldn’t be happier,” she said.
Sergey Saliavin, a resident of Moscow, said he had been planning a trip to the island for a long time. Now having spent a few days in the balmy Caribbean, he acknowledged that “it’s going to be tough going back to reality.”
Jardines del Rey, an archipelago with 25 hotels, was among the first resort areas to reopen to tourists after the end of the island’s coronavirus-triggered border closings.
It is also the only one that remains almost completely cut off from the main island.
That isolation will continue until Ciego de Avila, the province where Jardines del Rey’s popular Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are located, is deemed to have met the health requirements of the country’s “new normal,” which went into effect on Oct. 12 and allows the complete resumption of activities and services.
Cuban workers at hotels and marinas in Jardines del Rey are the only ones allowed to enter and leave its different keys, which are among the Communist-ruled island’s most popular sun-and-sand destinations.
The personnel work seven-day shifts to minimize the risk of infection; at present, there are no official figures on the number of workers at those tourist complexes who have contracted COVID-19.
Around six flights arrive every week from Russia and Canada at Cayo Coco’s airport, only a fraction of the roughly 70 per week that touched down prior to the pandemic, mainly from North America and Europe.
More than 7,000 tourists have arrived on the archipelago since September, a number that pales in comparison to previous years but is seen by the island’s authorities as a promising start.
“Considering the situation in the world and the country, it’s an important step,” said the airport’s director, Mario Hernandez, who added that two new flights will soon be operating from Canada, the main source market for tourists to Cuba.
Tourism is the second-leading source of hard currency for the Caribbean island behind the export of professional services. Prior to the pandemic, it accounted for 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and employed a half-million people.
As a result of a thaw in US-Cuban relations pursued by former President Barack Obama, the island posted a series of record-setting years in 2016, 2017 and 2018, with 4.5 million, 4.6 million and 4.7 million tourist arrivals, respectively.
But a stiffening of the decades-old US embargo on Cuba under President Donald Trump – including a ban on cruise ships stopping in Cuba, the most popular way for Americans to travel to the island after 2016 – caused those arrivals to fall to 4.2 million in 2019.
In response, Cuba looked to traditional source countries like Canada and emerging markets such as Russia to boost its tourism numbers.
Cuba had aspired to receive 4.5 million tourists in 2020 and reverse the recent downward trend, but eight months of border closings put that target out of reach.
Tourist arrivals from Russia rose more than 45 percent early this year, when that country leapfrogged the US to become the third-leading source of visitors to the Caribbean nation.
At Memories Flamenco Beach Resort, a five-star hotel that is part of Canada’s Blue Diamond Resorts chain, Russian guests are the majority.
“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from customers. We try to offer a pleasant stay while respecting biosafety and hygiene norms, which is now the most important thing,” said that hotel’s director, Alejandro Jaime.
Valentina, a 42-year-old visitor from Saint Petersburg, is one of those satisfied customers, who said the service and conditions have been all that she had hoped for.
She said she would have liked to be able to make day trips to places on the main island like the colonial town of Trinidad and nearby Camaguey, both of which have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, but nevertheless is enjoying her rest and relaxation.
“It’s not too bad in the pool,” Valentina joked.