Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Cuba sees tourism rise, French to renovate Havana airport

Published:Friday | August 5, 2016 | 8:00 AM
In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Carnival's Fathom cruise line ship Adonia arrives from Miami in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

MORE THAN two million tourists have visited Cuba this year, state media said on Wednesday, putting the country on track for a record number of visitors bringing badly needed cash to an economy facing a sharp reduction in subsidised oil from its chief ally, Venezuela.

Tourism Minister MaÒuel Marrero said visitor numbers were running 12 per cent ahead of those last year, which already saw a record number of tourists. The surge is credited to a wave of international interest in Cuba prompted by the announcement of the United States-Cuba detente in December 2014. Visitor numbers are expected to get a major boost after commercial flights from the United States begin this month.

The rise in tourism has strained Cuba's infrastructure, filling hotels to capacity and creating long waits at Havana's JosÈ Marti International Airport. The government announced on Wednesday that Aeroports de Paris, the French government-controlled firm that runs Charles de Gaulle, Orly and other Paris airports, would receive a concession to operate Jose Marti, which would be renovated by the French firm Bouygues.

The announcement contained no details, but updating the airport to receive hundreds of thousands more tourists a year will almost certainly become of the most important infrastructure projects in Cuba, and the largest French-Cuban deal since President François Hollande visited the island in May 2015.

A spokesman for Aeroports de Paris declined immediate comment.

Marrero said Cuba expects to receive 3.8 million tourists this year. Josefina Vidal, Cuba's head of US relations, said via Twitter on Wednesday that 138,000 Americans visited in the first half of 2016, an 80 per cent increase that made the US the second-largest source of visitors after Canada.

Cuba has become increasingly dependent on tourism as Venezuela has cut back on the supply of cheap oil sent in exchange for Cuban doctors to staff neighbourhood medical clinics. President Raúl Castro warned last month that the country faced sharply slower growth this year, and the economy expanded by a mere one per cent in the first half of 2016.

Cuba has begun cutting back on energy use, primarily in government offices, where workers are being told to leave early and cut back on air conditioning.

- AP