Cuba lures Russians, Chinese to revive ailing tourism sector By Reuters

By Dave Sherwood and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) – Russian tourist Serguei Boyaryshnic wandered in awe among the pastel-colored buildings and cobbled streets of Old Havana on a weekday morning, his family in tow.

“We had heard a lot about Cuba. Our countries have been friends for years,” said the 36-year-old Moscow resident, who had joined a small tour group. “We want everything for it.”

Cuba has recently begun offering benefits to lure visitors like Boyaryshnic from allied countries such as Russia and China as it struggles to revive a stagnant tourism sector still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

This has meant more and sometimes direct flights from Russia and China, the elimination of visa requirements for Chinese visitors, and Cuba’s recent decision to accept Russian Mir payment cards, one of only a handful of countries to join the alternative of Moscow to Visa (NYSE: ) and Mastercard (NYSE: ).

This strategy has paid early dividends.

More than 66,000 Russians visited the Caribbean island in the first three months of the year, Cuban state media reported, double that of the same period in 2023. Still, Russian visitors are one of Cuba’s tourism bright spots.

Harsh United States sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump contributed to a sharp reduction in American visitors, and arrivals from many European countries have also fallen this year, state data show.

Cuba’s bet on far-flung countries may not offset the overall drop in visitors, said Paolo Spadoni, an associate professor at Augusta University and an expert on Cuban tourism. A trip from Beijing, on holidays, for example, may require 24 hours or more of travel.

It’s a long shot,” said Spadoni. “(Chinese and Russian visitors) may provide some relief in the short term, but it is highly unlikely that they will make up for the lost contingent of European and American visitors.”

That means Cuba is unlikely to meet its goal of attracting 3.2 million visitors in 2024, Spadoni said. He estimates that the island will welcome between 2.6 million and 2.7 million tourists this year.

On a recent weekday morning, Old Havana – a UN World Heritage site and one of Latin America’s most famous tourist spots – was eerily quiet.

The signs of an ailing industry are everywhere. Hotel lobbies and restaurants, once popular with foreigners, are all but barren. The white sand beaches see few international visitors. And at Havana’s airport, taxi drivers complain that they often wait all day for a single customer.

For Migdalia Gonzalez, a 55-year-old street vendor in Old Havana, the situation couldn’t be worse.

© Reuters.  Tourists ride in a vintage car at Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, June 8, 2024. REUTERS/Yander Zamora

She has noticed more Russian and Chinese tourists than in past years, but not fans of the empanada cakes she sells.

“Tourist activity here has bottomed out,” she said.

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