August 4, 2016 / 11:02 AM / 2 years ago

UPDATE 1-Cuba picks French firms to expand airport as tourism booms

(Adds comment from Bouygues’ construction unit on awaiting contract)

By Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh

HAVANA, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Cuba has chosen French firms Bouygues and Groupe ADP to modernize, expand and operate its Jose Marti International Airport in Havana to cope with a tourism boom.

Foreign visitors to the Caribbean island jumped by 12 percent in the first half of 2016, the Tourism Ministry said on Tuesday, putting Cuba on track to a new annual record and its ageing infrastructure under strain.

“The project foresees the financing and execution of immediate actions to improve the quality of services as well as medium and long-term investments corresponding to the estimated growth in passengers,” the Transport Ministry said late on Wednesday.

Cuba selected Bouygues because of its track record in the construction sector in Cuba and Groupe ADP, previously known as Aeroports de Paris, for its experience operating major airports in France and elsewhere, the ministry said.

France struck a deal with Cuba last year, under which it agreed to convert several hundred million dollars in debt into development projects for the island.

The French embassy in Havana was not available for comment on whether the airport expansion was one of those projects and the project’s financing terms were not immediately clear.

A Bouygues Construction spokesman on Thursday said the group expected to enter into exclusive negotiations with Cuba for the building work, while Groupe ADP declined to comment.

“We’re still waiting for the contract,” the spokesman said.

Cuba is becoming increasingly dependent on tourism as its exports plunge due to falling global commodities prices. It has also been hit by a reduction in shipments of cheap oil by its crisis-stricken ally Venezuela.

International tourists by increased 17 percent to 3.5 million in 2015 and generated $2.8 billion, official data shows, making it the second strongest revenue stream, after the export of professional services.

Already popular as a beach resort for Europeans and Canadians, Cuba has seen a particular rise in American visitors since the United States and Cuba announced in December 2014 that they would work to normalize relations.

This is expected to surge further after U.S. commercial scheduled flights are reintroduced at the end of this month. (Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer in Paris; Editing by Richard Lough)

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