Cuba is struggling to see the rebirth of its tourism industry after months of Covid-19-induced measures that prevented tourists from entering the country. On top of the sanitary crisis, the US restrictions imposed to the communist-run island are threatening to wreck the government’s plan to save the economy from a deepening crisis.
1. Response to Covid-19
Cuba has long been a popular Caribbean destination. This year, the island was betting on tourism to power 4% of its economy after the harsh consequences of the pandemic. As a result, food and medicines shortages and power outages have led thousands to protest against the government of Raul Castro.
Some analysts blame Cuba for the extreme caution with which it has led the pandemic. With the majority of its population vaccinated, the Caribbean island kept its borders largely shut until mid-November 2021. This decision saw Cuba attract 67% fewer visitors in 2021 versus 2020, and less than 10% of the 4.3 million arrivals in 2019.
In contrast, the Caribbean as a whole saw tourist numbers rebound by 63% in 2021, while Cuba remained largely off-limits, according to United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) data.
In 2020, the gross domestic product (GDP) of Latin America suffered a contraction of 110 billion U.S. dollars due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourism. Meanwhile, the global travel restrictions imposed due to the health crisis caused a GDP decline of 34 billion U.S. dollars in the Caribbean. In consequence, tourism employment was also severely affected in those regions that year.
2. Slow uptake
In January, a popular month for travel to the Caribbean, only 84,000 tourists visited Cuba, down by 80% from around 394,000 in 2020, and well shy of the pace necessary to hit the country’s goal of 2.5 million visitors in 2022, according to UNWTO.
Empty beaches and hotels could prove yet another blow to Cuba’s ailing and inefficient state-run economy, dependent on foreign exchange from tourism (which accounts for 10% of GDP) to purchase basics, such as food and medicine, on the global market.
Cuba is an adventure, one-time destination for many and with the pandemic these people look for familiar, safe places and not risk.Paolo Spadoni, expert on the Cuban economy at Augusta University in Georgia
Independent experts and Cuban tourism operators told Reuters that Cuba will struggle to recover lost ground during the pandemic, largely because of the US restrictions that have all but eliminated travel between Cuba and the large US market.
3. US restrictions
There is little doubt that the US restrictions, adopted by US President Donald Trump, which ended cruise ship dockings, restricted flights, and blacklisted a long list of hotels and other entities, has had a huge impact on Cuba’s tourism industry.
The cruise ships are gone. There are many hotels that were built but are still empty because tourism has decreased. It has hurt us economically.Pablo Perez, a 53-year-old who sells artisan crafts to tourists in downtown Havana
The country is still hopeful that Trump’s successor Joe Biden will revoke the sanctions. However, with the Cuban government’s heavy-handed response to the protests last year, the Communist island got a sharp rebuke from the US administration.
According to Paolo Spadoni, an expert on the Cuban economy at Augusta University in Georgi, news about the protests, the reaction, and economic woes have also been putting off the return of tourists from outside the US. That includes Canadian and Latin American travellers, previously both frequent visitors to the island, he said.
“All those negative headlines didn’t help Cuba attract a greater number of tourists,” said Spadoni. “Cuba is an adventure, one-time destination for many and with the pandemic these people look for familiar, safe places and not risk,” he added. “Cuba now has competitive (health) protocols, so let’s hope the headlines improve.”