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Business As Usual In Cuba

Little has changed for tourists now that Fidel Castro is gone

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Apr 06, 2008

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 became 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 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 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 such as 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 itself.

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."

Little has changed for tourists now that Fidel Castro is gone
John Lennon in Havana

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