HAVANA – After Hurricane Irma’s passage over Cuba devastated many of the island’s main tourist centers, the hotel sector appears to have gotten its bearings and readied itself for the high season starting on Nov. 1, during which Canadian tourists will be key in giving the local economy a much-needed boost.
Canada is the main tourist-sending nation to Cuba, contributing about 25 percent of the island’s foreign visitors, or about a million tourists, per year.
Keenly aware of this fact, Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero last week visited Toronto and Montreal to convince tour operators and travel agencies there that the island’s tourism infrastructure is in good shape, despite the damage from the storm.
Irma, the worst hurricane to hit Cuba in 80 years, caused extensive material damage and resulted in a 50 percent plunge in the number of foreign visitors in September as thousands of tourists cancelled their trips.
“Everything’s OK again. Cubans have lots of experience and recover very quickly in these situations. What’s more, tourism is a very important source of income,” Julie Forcier, a representative for the Montreal-based Transat, one of Canada’s largest tour operators to the Caribbean, told EFE.
Forcier – who was participating in a tour of Cubanacan’s facilities on the island – said that Cuba is the destination of choice for Canadians seeking the Caribbean sun during the winter, but they also feel “right at home” on the island because of the excellent treatment they receive from the locals.
The beaches on the northern coastal islands of Santa Maria, Coco and Guillermo – the area hardest hit by Irma – are among Canadians’ favorites, although in other spots like Santa Lucia in Camaguey 70 percent of the almost 300,000 annual tourists are Canadians.
Montreal resident Eva Guida has visited Cuba 30 times in 12 years and half of those visits have been to Santa Lucia. “I love Cuba, what I like most are the people, they’re very friendly, they’re like family,” she said.
“I had my doubts for a few weeks after the ... hurricane, but it didn’t bother me. I came because I know that they recover quickly and the hotel is in perfect shape,” she added.
Canadian travel and tourist agencies emphasize “safety” as one of Cuba’s main attractions despite the recent travel alert issued by the US government because of the alleged “acoustic attacks” in Havana affecting the health of some 20 US diplomats, as well as several Canadians.
In Camaguey, where Americans comprise 60 percent of the visitors staying in local hotels, “in recent weeks a decline in the arrival of these visitors has been noted, although little by little it’s recovering,” Juan Jose Diaz, the general director of Cubanacan’s hotels in the city’s historic zone, the largest such area in Cuba, told EFE.
US citizen Rick Bronson, from Oregon, said that the travel alert is a “big lie” put out by the government in Washington, adding that Cuba, to which he has traveled seven times, is one of the places in the world where he feels safest.
“We’re very disgusted with the attitude of our government. We hope that the relationship between Cuba and the US continues and grows,” Mike Stabler, of Michigan, told EFE.