U.S. tourist invasion a mixed blessing

Cuba has been the hot ticket for Canadian sun-seekers this winter and probably will be again next year – if the U.S. government maintains its political and economic stranglehold on the Caribbean island.

Right now, Fidel Castro’s Cuba is the best value in the Caribbean for vacationing Canadians. The beaches are magnificent, its upscale hotels are comfortable and inexpensive compared to neighbouring islands, the people are friendly… and it’s safe. I’ve walked the main streets of Havana, as well as the beaches and hotel areas of Varadero and Holguin, without a worry. Of course, I didn’t stroll down any dark alleys late at night in the poorer sections of any of the major cities.

If, however, the U.S. Congress drops its rigid embargo against Communist-run Cuba, watch out. The island would be flooded with eager Americans wanting to visit the once forbidden land. A trickle of Americans already do visit the island on religious or educational tours, but not without special U.S. government permits. Many more filter through illegally via Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas.

It’s estimated upwards of 30,000 Americans visit Cuba each year, most of them illegally. But that’s peanuts comred to the huge influx expected when the embargo is lifted, causing hotel and food prices to soar. Cubans would be happy because they could import much-needed medical supplies and machinery plus generate trade with the U.S. to repair the country’s tattered economy.

The big losers could be Canadian vacationers who have enjoyed the sunny island since the early 1960s at relatively low cost.

Yet while all Cubans wish the embargo lifted, not everyone’s eager for the flood of American tourists.

"We’ll welcome American visitors when the embargo is lifted, but we don’t need them," says Carlos Seara Chacon, tourism chief of Holguin province in eastern Cuba. "The major hotels right now are full of Canadians, Germans, Italians and others from Europe and South America."

"My company has contracts with Sunquest and Signature of Canada and many European tour operators – and we intend to honour them even if the embargo is dropped," states Eliana Ramos, a marketing executive for Melia’s Hotels, a Spanish company with four properties in Holguin.

Cuba welcomed 1.4 million tourists last year and are confidently forecasting a jump of 21 per cent to 1.7 million by the end of 1999. The country boasts 179 hotels with 28,000 rooms and plans to add another 4,000 rooms by the end of this year.

"We’re building four new hotels, all of them 5- and 4-stars, here in Holguin. Several will be ready later this year, adding another thousand rooms," says Chacon.

Despite this abundance of accommodation, Cuban hotels have a frustrating habit of over-booking. It has become such a concern for Canadian tour operators that a senior executive with Sunquest Vacations asked Pierre Trudeau, a frequent visitor to Cuba, to speak to his old pal Fidel to have the practice stopped.