Cuba scrambles to keep pace with U.S.-fueled tourism boom

Wed May 4, 2016 6:44pm EDT
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By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba has nearly doubled this year, its tourism minister said on Wednesday, as the island races to build hotels and expand Havana airport to keep up with booming demand.

Tourism has taken off since Cuba and the United States announced they would work to bury the Cold War hatchet in December 2014. The Caribbean island received a record 3.5 million visitors last year.

The influx has pushed capacity to the limit, prompting hotels to sharply hike prices and raising questions about how Cuba will absorb additional visitors when scheduled U.S. commercial airline service starts later this year.

"With the increase in demand there have occurred problems with the confirmation of reservations and some irritation with delays at the airports, most of all in Havana," Minister Manuel Marrero said at the opening of an annual tourism fair.

Still, overall satisfaction with Cuba as a destination was high, reflected by the fact that nearly half of last year's tourists were return visitors, he said.

The number of visitors so far in 2016 jumped 13.5 percent on the year to 1.5 million tourists, Marrero said. Of those, 94,000 were Americans, a 93-percent jump on the year, and more than 115,000 were Cuban-Americans.

Cuba's tourism infrastructure is creaking mainly in the capital, where visits were up 37 percent this year, according to the minister. Almost all Americans visit Havana as part of their itineraries as they are banned from the beach.

Marrero said three new hotels were under construction around the colonial part of the city, bids were in to renovate some existing establishments, and more were on the drawing board.   Continued...

A tourist walks on the main touristic road in Old Havana, Cuba, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini