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Cuba Sees Sharp Decline in US Travelers

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© Getty Images PHOTO: Vintage classic American car in Havana, Cuba. (photo via Delpixart/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus)

By Monica Poling, TravelPulse

lthough Americans are increasingly setting a course for international travel, it’s looking like Cuba, the once-darling of the intrepid adventurer has fallen out of favor with U.S. travelers.

During the first three months of 2018, Cuba saw a 7 percent decrease in visitation—as compared to the same period last year—a decline that is largely being fueled by a slowdown in travel from the United States, according to a report at CubanDebate.cu. Travelers from the U.S. are Cuba’s third largest market, behind Canadians and Cuban expatriates living in the U.S. and other international destinations.

The once-forbidden Caribbean island drew in record visitor traffic in 2017, welcoming nearly 4.7 million visitors, a number that reflects a 16.2 percent growth over 2016. Michel Bernal, the director of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism (MinTur) called the growth “remarkable” when compared with the worldwide growth of four percent.

By the end of 2017, however, tourism from the U.S. began to slow after the island suffered a triple whammy of bad press.

First, Cuba found itself directly in the path of the devastating Hurricane Irma that ravaged much of the Caribbean last fall. While flooding and damage were widely reported, the tourism industry immediately began assuring travelers that the damage was not nearly as bad as the media made it seem.

After the passage of Hurricane Irma came the news that a handful of government workers at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba suffered from unexplained medical problems that were largely being attributed to sonic attacks. Although Cuba repeatedly denied any involvement in any such attacks, the U.S. State Department issued an elevated travel warning to Cuba and scaled back its official presence in the country.

Finally, and perhaps most detrimental to inbound travel, was the confusion that ensued after President Donald Trump announced he was “canceling” President Obama’s one-sided deal with Cuba, causing many Americans to believe that travel to Cuba had once again become off limits. The policy changes were minor, however, and Cuba remains open to American travelers..

Also affecting the bottom line when it comes to overnight tourism is a dramatic growth in cruise product to Cuba. While the increased number of cruise passengers could potentially be good news for local operators and retailers, the influx of visitation does not affect overnight visitor numbers nor does it contribute to tax revenues generated by hotel stays.

Despite the downturn, Cuba remains optimistic that it will ultimately outpace last year’s numbers and will meet the 5 million visitor goal it set for itself. In early May it will host an International Tourism Fair in Cayo Santa Maria, to which it is inviting tour operators and other tourism industry representatives from around the world. In particular, tourism officials are focusing on an increased presence from European tour operators, which Cuba hopes will help offset some of the early losses.

Tour operators in the U.S. are also working to assure Americans that Cuba is legal, safe and easier to visit than it has been in nearly half a century.

In late January, the tourism industry hosted a historic summit at the MeliĆ” Cohiba in Havana, which was attended by more than 120 tour operators, cruise operators, travel agencies, commercial airlines, Cuban hoteliers, tourism leaders and members of the media.

“There are now more legal ways for U.S. travelers to visit Cuba than there were just a few years ago,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, who organized the event.

Popper also noted that Cuba also recently received the Excellence Award for the “safest country” in the world during the Madrid International Tourism Trade Fair (FITTUR) earlier this year.

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