Canadian snowbirds boost Cuban tourism recovery

Wed Apr 9, 2008 2:04pm EDT
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HAVANA (Reuters) - Canadian tourists fleeing a harsh winter and buoyed by their strong dollar are flocking to Cuban beaches in record numbers and helping Cuba's tourist trade end a two-year slump.

Cuban hotel managers said a surge in Canadian "snowbirds" led to unprecedented tourism during the winter months of January through March.

And prospects for hotels during the summer improved last week when the government of Cuba's new President Raul Castro lifted a ban on Cubans staying at resort hotels formerly reserved for foreigners only.

Uncertainty over Cuba's future since Fidel Castro fell ill nearly two years ago and handed over power to his brother has not deterred tourism. On the contrary, having Cuba in the news has spurred interest in visiting the communist-run country, travel agents said.

The tourist trade, a major source of hard currency for Cuba, peaked in 2005 with the arrival of 2.3 million visitors, but dropped to 2.1 million last year, of which some 600,00 were Canadians.

But in January this year Cuba received more tourists than in any high season since it opened up to foreign investment and tourism in the mid-1990s: 247,386 visitors. Almost half were Canadians, a 30 percent increase over January last year.

"The high season has been very good, and it's thanks to the Canadians," said a European hotel manager who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to a journalist.

Cuba has acted on complaints of poor service, he said, and reduced the theft of luggage and immigration delays at Cuban airports, where about 50 flights land each week from Canada.

Cuba's ministry of tourism has actively sought new business offering tour operators better-priced deals compared to rival Mexican and Dominican destinations, the manager said.   Continued...

<p>People enjoy a day on the beach as rain clouds gather in Guanabo, outside Havana August 12, 2007. REUTERS/Claudia Daut</p>