Cuba is looking for investors to help stimulate an unprecedented tourism boom after the country improved ties with the United States. The tourism industry, Cuba’s second largest foreign revenue earner following the export of health services, has achieved a 17.4 percent rise in foreign visitors to a record 3,524,779 in 2015.
Traditionally, foreign visitors to Cuba come mainly from Canada (1.3 million in 2015 or 10.6 percent more than the year before), followed by Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. Mexico ranked sixth, leading Latin American countries.
The situation is changing, as more Americans have taken advantage of their country’s warmer bilateral relations with Cuba and more relaxed travel restrictions to visit the Caribbean nation, located just 169 km from the Florida coast. It’s estimated that 145,000 Americans visited the island in 2015, an increase of 79 percent over the previous year, and the trend is expected to keep up this year.
Other nationalities are also rushing to visit the island, fearing a full-blown American onslaught will soon alter the country’s natural landscape with fast-food franchises and chain convenience stores. Travel Leaders Group, a U.S. leading travel agency, said in a report on Monday that Cuba has topped the list of favorite destinations for luxury travel in 2016.
The New York Times also picked Cuba’s Vinales Valley as one of this year’s 52 must-see travel destinations. With a growing demand for hotels, restaurants and other tourism facilities and services, Cuba is in a desperate need to develop its tourism infrastructure through investment. To attract capital flows, Cuban tourism professionals have worked with their Spanish counterparts to promote their country’s profile at the 2016 International Tourism Trade Fair (FITUR) held this week in Madrid.
Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero earlier this week tried to reassure the island’s traditional European investors, who expressed concern of being marginalized by a sudden influx of U.S. tourism heavyweights. “Cuba will never turn its back on those who collaborated with us when times were tough,” Marrero was quoted by Cuban news agency Prensa Latina as saying when speaking to representatives of European tourism companies. Companies that continued to do business with Cuba and contributed to its tourism development despite past U.S. pressures will always have the support of the Cuban authorities, enjoying more privileges and preferential terms than other firms, said Marrero.
The Cuban Tourism Ministry has reportedly been considering an increase in the country’s 63,000 hotel rooms to 85,500 over the next five years, and to build more resorts and golf courses with foreign investment. In Havana, officials are studying the feasibility of 12 proposals put forward by foreign companies, mostly from Spain, to build hotels and other tourism facilities.
The central government, led by President Raul Castro, has named tourism a strategic sector to finance the country’s social programs, such as universal health care and free education. Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, said earlier this week in Madrid that Cuba’s tourism industry holds a “brilliant and promising” future.