A dozen tour buses idled along the Malecón and so many tourists were snapping pictures of the giant images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on a recent day at the Plaza de la Revolución that it looked like a Communist theme park.
Foreign visitors are coming to Cuba in droves this winter season. International visitors were up by 16 percent in January to a record 371,160 compared to the previous year, according to figures from Cuba’s Office of National Statistics and Information.
That came on the heels of a record-setting year in 2014 when 3.003 million international visitors arrived in Cuba. And that’s not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who travel to the island to visit family.
Canada led the way with 181,101 visitors in January for a 15 percent increase, but Germany with 15,832 and England with 14,526 visitors showed the largest percentage increases. Visitor arrivals for those countries were up 37.8 percent and 32.2 percent, respectively.
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Rounding out the Top 10 for international visitors were France, Italy, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Russia. However, arrivals from Argentina and Russia — both plagued by economic problems — were down by 24.1 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
Cruise travelers increased from 928 visitors in January 2014, to 3,937 visitors this January, but the industry is still in its infancy in Cuba.
During January, visitors from the United States didn’t crack the top 18 international markets for Cuba. Such visitors fell into the “other” category, which at 75,435 visitors, was up 14 percent.
New, more liberal rules for U.S. travelers were only announced Jan. 15. Travel operators report a flurry of American interest in booking trips to Cuba, but it’s too early to see a major bump in U.S. travel to the island.
However, since President Barack Obama announced Dec. 17 that the United States and Cuba planned to renew diplomatic ties and the U.S. was embarking on a limited travel and commercial opening with Cuba, there’s been a buzz about the island.
Canadian travel websites, for example, have been filled with commentary about how now is the time to visit Cuba before it is overrun by American travelers.
“For Cuba it sounds like the dawn of a chapter of economic opportunity; though for Canadians it’s more likely sunset on an era of cheap winter vacations,” Tony Ward and John Middleton, Canadian tourism professors, wrote in The Globe and Mail.
The new U.S. rules allow visitors in 12 categories, including educational, research and humanitarian and participants in sporting events and performances, to travel to the island without seeking prior approval from the U.S. government. The new guidelines also make it easier for travel providers to plan trips and sell tickets.
But Americans in those categories are all supposed to engage in purposeful travel — rather than lazy days at the beach and trips planned solely around tourism sites.
Presumably that means they won’t be visiting Jardines del Rey, a sandy archipelago with coral reefs off Cuba’s northern coast that is being developed as a rival to Cuba’s famed Varadero Beach. It too is having its best winter season ever.
Located in the provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba, Jardines del Rey has 16 hotels with more than 6,000 rooms and will be the site of Cuba’s International Tourism Fair in May.
So far this winter, AIN — the Cuban National Information Agency — reports that Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, which are part of Jardines del Rey, have been hosting a record 7,000 visitors a day. The destination is receiving 40 flights weekly.
AIN also recently reported that a Chinese company, Beijing Enterprises Holdings, was in talks with the Cuban state company Palmares to form a joint venture to develop a resort complex with a five-star hotel and golf course in Bellomonte, east of Havana.
Air China is looking into establishing a direct flight between Beijing and Havana in the fall, according to Ma Kequian, the economic and commercial officer at the Chinese Embassy in Havana.