Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tourism in Cuba 'business as usual' after departure of Fidel Castro

Tourism in Cuba 'business as usual' after departure of Fidel Castro

11 hours ago

Canadians continue to flock to Cuba, with seemingly little worry of any
political fallout after longtime president Fidel Castro's handover of
power to his brother Raul.

Castro took ill in July 2006 and delegated many of his duties to his
younger brother.

Tourism industry representatives report "business as usual" in the
Caribbean island's tourism sector, even following the February handover
of the presidency to Raul Castro.

"There is literally no impact at this point in terms of traffic," said
Pierre LePage, executive director of the Canadian Association of Tour
Operators. "The transition from Fidel to his brother has had more impact
in the U.S. in the media and in terms of political impact. But in terms
of Canadian clients, there is no difference."

The Cuban Tourist Board in Toronto reported a 29 per cent increase in
Canadian travellers this January and February compared to last year. The
board said 660,387 visitors came from Canada in 2007.

Tourism became a key part of Cuba's economy soon after the collapse of
the Soviet Union, Cuba's most important ally, in 1991.

Julie Parker of Kingston, Ont., expected another carefree vacation this
winter. Since 1990 she has vacationed in Cuba almost every year with her
husband and, on occasion, other family members. They head for a rural
part of the province of Cienfuegos to unwind at a small hotel. Parker
said they had no concerns about changes in the political hierarchy
affecting their stay.

"Perhaps we're naive, but I'm not expecting anything negative," Parker
said as she geared up for her March vacation. "The countryside is safe
so you can walk the beaches and the roads. We go mainly for the rest and
relaxation, although this year we will also participate in Cienfuegos'
Terry Fox run."

Cuba has welcomed more than two million visitors each year since 2004.
The number of travellers did slip in 2006, according to LePage, but that
didn't have anything to do with Fidel Castro's health. The Canadian
Association of Tour Operators advised Cuba that issues like poor service
and airport theft were problems. Lepage says that these issues have been
"very well addressed" by the Cuban government.

Elias Bestard, the Cuban Tourist Board's director in Toronto, points out
new additions to the travel sector in recent and coming months,
including the Varadero Jam Session jazz festival, a spa in Cayo Coco,
and several hotels in and outside Havana.

Hal Klepak, a Cuban military specialist at the Royal Military College in
Kingston, says concerns about instability are scarce because the chances
of disruption, much less violence, are slim.

"Raul is one of three options for Cubans," Klepak said. "They can riot
for change and possibly bring violence and civil war, which no one, not
even the dissidents, want; they can call for U.S. intervention and act
in ways that might precipitate that, but such actions would be rejected
by the vast majority. Or they can give Raul the benefit of the doubt and
the time to try to reform things. They do not really have other options
available to them. Not surprisingly then, in my view, they have
decisively opted for the third of these possibilities."

"While the U.S. could continue to try, or even increase, its subversion
of the government in Havana, that is unlikely unless (U.S. Republican
presidential candidate John) McCain were to win the elections, and even
then, given 50 years of failure, its chances of success are not great,"
Klepak added.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has no special
warning for Canadian travellers to Cuba, advising on its website only
that visitors "exercise normal safety precautions."

Jeffrey Woznow, a travel manager with the CAA in Ottawa, said good
security is one reason that Canadians will keep travelling to Cuba.

"It's got great beaches and weather, it's safe and affordable," he said.

Woznow, who has not noted any extraordinary queries about travelling to
Cuba, says the country, in fact, is increasing its appeal by
diversifying and improving its lodgings and services.

Indeed, Parker has seen minor improvements at her Cienfuegos hotel in
recent years, including better staffing and some upgrades to the hotel

What might turn Parker off from Cuba would be a flood of American
tourists should economic restrictions against the Communist regime be
lifted. Currently, the U.S. government basically bans its residents from
travelling there.

"An influx of Americans might lead to more of the all-inclusive style
resorts like in Varadero Beach that are just like the resorts in any
other country," Parker said.

"If it means that Cuba has a better relationship with the U.S., then
that's good - but it may not be good for us."

Celeste Mackenzie is an Ottawa-based freelance writer.

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