By Rosa Tania Valdes | REUTERS
The number of tourists visiting Cuba dropped 3.6 per cent last year due to high prices and not political uncertainty over Fidel Castro’s illness, travel industry sources said.
An outbreak of mosquito-born dengue fever also scared some visitors away, they said this week.
A tour operator in Havana reported only one cancellation u2;013 by a group of Russian tourists u2;013 due to fears of political turmoil if and when the ailing Castro dies.
The 80-year-old Cuban leader has not been seen in public since he underwent emergency intestinal surgery six months ago and handed over power to his brother Raul Castro.
Cuba’s cash-strapped economy relies heavily on tourism for foreign currency earnings.
But visitors fell to 2.2 million last year from 2.3 million in 2005, the Cuban government said. It was the first drop since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States hurt the travel industry worldwide in 2002.
Canadian tourism, source of 27 percent of Cuba’s arrivals or about 600,000 a year, dipped for the first time in years, according to Cuban government figures.
u2;01CCancun and the Dominican Republic offered better deals,u2;01D a Canadian diplomat said.
Tour operators said Cuba lost its competitive edge when it revalued its currency by 8 percent in 2005. They said tourists get more quality for their money elsewhere.
The Canadian Association of Tour Operators warned Cuba last year that it was losing out to other Caribbean destinations due to the lack of adequate service for tourists, theft of luggage at airports and hotels, and a failure to attend to complaints.
Cuba expanded its hotel capacity to 44,000 rooms last year, one-fourth of them in 24 hotels administered by Spanish chain Sol Melia.
The number of tourists visiting Cuba from Spain, Italy, Germany and France declined last year, while Britain became Cuba’s second market after Canada.
The dengue outbreak, which led to the fumigation of Cuban cities with smoke to kill mosquitoes, led some tourists to stay away last autumn, particularly from Italy, a European tour operator said.
Except for the Russian group, concern about Fidel Castro’s possible death and its aftermath has not been the reason for cancellations, he said.
Bookings for the winter high season are strong.
u2;01CAs long as Fidel is alive, the situation will be stable. If anything happens to him, I would be worried,u2;01D he said.