Cuba cites drop in U.S., European arrivals as tourism sags

Cuba’s tourism arrivals shrank by nearly 5 percent in April compared to the same month last year, largely because of significant drops in visitors from the United States and southern Europe, according to official reports.

But its income from tourism held steady, apparently as Cuba raised its prices and reached out to more big-spending tourists, moving away from its traditional attractions of low-cost, all-inclusive beach resorts.

Cuba’s National Statistic Office (ONE) reported that tourist arrivals fell from 288,000 in April of last year to 274,000 in the same month this year — a 4.9 percent drop. The 1.2 million visitors for the first four months of this year was 1.4 percent down from the same period in 2012.

Of the 18 source countries listed separately by ONE, the three at the top — Canada, United Kingdom and Germany — saw increases of 1.3 percent, 8.1 percent and 11.8 percent, respectively.

Visitors from Spain plunged by 29.5 percent from April to April — from 6,359 to 3,834 — from Italy by 7.2 percent and from France by 6.8 percent, according to the ONE report.

But the most significant drop was in the “other” category, which ONE uses to lump together arrivals from the United States and all other countries with less than 2,000 or so tourists. That fell from 63,248 in April of last year to 54,771 this April — 13.4 percent.

Arrivals from “other” countries also fell from 258,378 in the first quarter of 2012 to 243,782 in the same period this year, according to ONE.

Johannes Werner, editor of the Tampa-based Cuba Standard, a publication that tracks the island’s economy, said the drop in Spanish and Italian arrivals reflected the financial crisis lashing those countries. Spain, for instance, has 20 percent unemployment.

“This shows the continued weakness of the southern European markets, which have been historically strong sources of tourists for Cuba,” Werner said.

As for the drop in U.S. arrivals, Werner said he could only speculate that the initial wave of interest in travel to Cuba after the Obama administration began easing restrictions on such travel in 2008 “has flattened out a bit.”

Cuba travel industry officials in Miami told El Nuevo Herald in February that only 45 charter flights to the island were scheduled for March, compared to 60 in September.

Although ONE does not report the number of arrivals by Cuban Americans or other U.S. residents on especially licensed “people-to-people” trips — tourism is illegal — the total of those categories was estimated at 440,000 in 2011.

Also down in ONE’s report was hotel occupancy, which dropped from 65.7 percent in the first quarter of 2012 to 63.7 percent in the same period this year.

Yet Cuba’s income from tourism during the first quarter of this year stayed at about $655 million, Werner said, most likely indicating that facilities have raised their prices but also showing that the island is trying to bring in more upscale tourists.

The already upscale Paradisus Hotel in the Varadero Beach resort, for instance, is adding a “Royal Service” category that includes limited-access pools and junior suites, he said. Cuba also is working on a string of new golf resorts and marinas.

“Obviously, the intent is to draw in bigger spenders,” Werner said.

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