Cuba has made no plans for spike in US visitors


HAVANA — Cuba has made no special preparations for a potential avalanche of American tourists if Washington moves forward with a plan to loosen rules on travel to the island, a top official said Tuesday.

The statements made by Maria Elena Lopez, a deputy tourism minister, came as U.S. lawmakers presented measures that could allow Americans to visit Cuba for the first time in decades. The changes would also prevent U.S. President Barack Obama from stopping travel here except in extreme cases.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has thrown its support behind provisions of a spending bill approved March 11 that would make it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to family members in Cuba.

Lopez told a news conference that Cuba “is prepared for international tourism,” but she was careful not to mention the words “United States.” When pressed about American visitors, she snapped: “For us, that country is part of the world and we prepare for all the world.”

Lopez did not address questions about how many more Cuban-Americans might visit thanks to family travel rules changes already approved and said that Cuba keeps no official estimate on how many total Americans might come annually if there was no law forbidding them from doing so.

She also declined to answer questions about whether officials in the government-controlled tourism industry have been in negotiations with U.S. airlines or cruise ship operators about expanding service to Cuba if American travel restrictions are eased.

Currently, only charter flights for Cuban-Americans, journalists, some business leaders and politicians, connect the United States and Havana.

The National Office of Statistics reported that through February, more than half a million foreigners visited Cuba, a 4.5 percent increase over the first two months of 2008, when the country set a record for foreign tourists with nearly 2.35 million.

Canada is the main source of foreign visitors and the number of Canadians jumped 16 percent in the first two months of this year as compared to last, topping 270,000. Tourists from Britain were the second-most common, followed by Italy — but both countries saw an 11 percent decline in the number of travelers to Cuba through February.

The number of visitors from Spain, France and Germany also declined slightly over the same period.

Lopez blamed falling European arrivals on the global economic downturn, saying the market for faraway-destination travel across the world has slowed. But she said she expects Canadian visitor rates to remain strong through 2009 and that overall foreign visitors rates should see a “small increase” in the first quarter.

Lopez said Cuba won’t cut prices, as some Caribbean destinations have done amid tourism rates decimated by global recessions.

“We have no plans for big discounts because we can’t predict the future of the market,” she said.

Cuba is already often cheaper than its Caribbean neighbors because many foreigners buy all-inclusive packages offering dozens of direct flights from Europe and Canada to airports all over the island, as well deep discounts on hotels, food and alcohol.