HAVANA, Cuba. – The number of foreign visitors to Cuba during the first semester of 2021 reached only 114.440, a very low figure if compared to the same period the year before, and relatively insignificant if compared to the number in 2019 when, during the same six-month period, the number of travelers exceeded 2 million, closing in December with 4.264.558.
We could be speaking of a miracle if, in 2021, the number of foreign visitors were to reach one million. Everything seems to indicate that, in spite of the efforts, the number will be closer to half a million tourists, and only if the Russian market –the only one to increase and thus becoming the main source– remains at the level it has delivered to date.
According to the most recent data published by the Office of National Statistics (ONEI, by its Spanish acronym), 72,304 Russian tourists visited Cuba, a lot more than the 12,207 Cubans from the diaspora (11,4% less than in 2020); 4.719 from Germany (11,9% less); 3.753 from Spain (17.2% less); and 2.296 from Canada (a tremendous decrease to 0,6 % of the 400.000 Canadians that visited Cuba in 2020).
This means that, in trying to face-up to the tourism panic –or so they say– tour operators doing business with the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) are placing their bets on Russia, in spite of the high costs this implies regarding health risks. Russia is one of the countries having the highest incidence of COVID-19 contagion at such a critical time for Cuba with respect to the daily spread of the disease.
Such a gamble is a desperate attempt that has required making adjustments in services usually reserved for high-standard clients –like Canadians, Europeans and even Cubans from the diaspora, or the millions of American tourists projected during the “Obama thaw” and that, apparently, will never materialize– and not for a leisure market classified as “low-yield” and “least cost-effective”.
In the opinion of experts and officials from the tourism sector, betting on the Russian market is more of an investment in the future –keeping in mind the disheartening forecast for the global market- than a business that would yield considerable and immediate profits. The costs related to the health crisis are much too high, caused -in Cuba’s case- mostly by the opening of tourist destinations in Varadero and at the northern keys in Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey, regions which face a critical and out-of-control situation.
A faculty member from the School of Tourism at the University of Havana, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said to us: “[At the Tourism Ministry] they thought the pandemic would be under control by now. If we study the promotional material of the last three months of last year, a spirit of triumphalism is evident. ‘Cuba beat the coronavirus,’ ‘Cuba is an anti-COVID paradise.’ It is a valid marketing strategy (…). They wanted to take advantage of the moment and corner the regional market, to rate higher than Cancún, than the Dominican Republic, at a time when the coronavirus was wreaking havoc in the Caribbean, but it’s all coming out wrong. Europe is closed, Canada is closed, so they opted for marketing to Russia where there are no restrictions, without regard to the risks, or to the fact that [Russia] is a low-yield tourism market (…). I think it was a desperate decision, but also a highly political rather than economic strategy, without a doubt. What Cuba is failing to earn from tourism is likely being compensated through other means, like in matters of national security which (to the Cuban government) are urgent at this time, like technology and weapons,” is this professor’s opinion, himself also an economist.
On his part, a former official at MINTUR and at the state enterprise Cubanacan S.A. (who also worked for some time promoting Cuba as a tourism destiny in Moscow and in other Russian cities), is of the opinion that there’s more to the government’s strategy than merely a gamble in a market that “in and of itself, is not promising with respect to tourism.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, this individual stated: “They are selling them high-standard facilities as if they were two and three-star hotels. Russians who come to Cuba are not the same Russians that travel to Europe, Turkey or Egypt. Cuba’s Russians adjust themselves to the “all included” package he or she bought, and takes maximum advantage of it (…). For each dollar invested, Russians yield less than a 10 cents profit (…). I have always asked myself why we kept making such absurd deals when we had products that were better suited to this low-yield market, even at the risk of having less clients or redirecting campaigns aimed at these tourists with money that went to Europe before the pandemic (…). I think the answer is that both governments benefit from the massive flow of people, from it being a constant and considerable flow of Russians to Cuba, and Cubans to Russia for “shopping” tourism, so that this massive human wave that moves back and forth can mask what really interests them: the movement of things more important than just “people sightseeing”.
The most recent statistics released by ONEI indicate a constant growth regarding the arrival of Russian travelers to the island, a total of 63% of all foreign visitors during the first semester of 2021. However, the official statistics do not distinguish between those who arrived solely on vacation (and whose final destination was a tourist facility) and those who visited Cuba on other business. There is no way of knowing if the number of passenger arrivals to Cuba corresponds exactly with the number of guests welcomed as part of a “sun-and-beaches” tourism package.
“The statistics only tell us that more than 70,000 Russians arrived in Cuba, but that doesn’t mean that it was 70,000 tourists,” according to a former Cuban diplomat and professor who resides in Cuba, who was interviewed by CubaNet.
“No doubt there is an increase in tourists. There better be a growth in the number of tourists and an important number at that, because today’s world is not the world of the 1980s. Few things can be kept secret (…) it’s difficult to hide air trafficking, maritime trafficking, especially during a pandemic (…). How do you justify three and four flights a day from Moscow to Havana if not by using tourism as pretext? Of course, they will continue to sell five-star hotels at motel prices (…), if the Russian ambassador says, ‘bring in the tourists’ and ‘stop that PCR tests nonsense’, the Cuban government will abide because it knows what is really at stake (…). Even if half of the island contracts COVID, the Russians will keep arriving in hordes. It’s not just about tourism, that’s the least of it. It’s about what’s kept hidden behind closed doors. (…) Weapons and new technologies required to operate them don’t just “arrive” on their own. We are not talking about a kitchen blender or a mobile phone. When it comes to military matters, you need the trainer and his experience,” states the former Foreign Ministry official.
During the July 11th people’s protests, the Cuban regime released unto the streets thousands of army and police agents dressed as civilians, and also its well-equipped elite forces, well-armed, well-equipped, and trained in anti-riot tactics. This is all supplied by Russia or acquired through million-dollar credits extended systematically to Cuba by the Kremlin.
In April 2015, on the occasion of Ricardo Cabrisas’ visit to Moscow, Russian Minister of Defense, Serguei Shoygu, declared that his country was willing to continue collaborating with the Cuban Armed Forces in order to modernize Cuba’s armaments. In July 2017, Cuba requested technical updating directly from Russia, and it received a transfer of cutting-edge technology. Between 2018 and 2020, Cuba was to receive credits, for the purchase of weapons, directly from the Russians in an estimated US$ 100 million.
In recent days, Russia announced it was sending to Havana two large military aircrafts loaded with “humanitarian assistance”, a gesture that, given Moscow’s preoccupation with developments in the island, would seem to be related more with a desire for a definite end to the protests than with offering relief on the public health front, a crisis that is, in large measure, the result of the massive presence of Russian “travelers” in Cuba.
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