Friday, January 26, 2007

Prices, not politics, slow Cuba tourism

Prices, not politics, slow Cuba tourism
By Rosa Tania Valdes, Reuters

HAVANA — The number of tourists visiting Cuba dropped 3.6% last year due
to high prices — 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 — by a group of
Russian tourists — 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% of Cuba's arrivals or about 600,000 a
year, dipped for the first time in years, according to Cuban government

"Cancun and the Dominican Republic offered better deals," a Canadian
diplomat said.

Tour operators said Cuba lost its competitive edge when it revalued its
currency by 8% 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.

"As long as Fidel is alive, the situation will be stable. If anything
happens to him, I would be worried," he said.

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