June 27, 2007 / 4:50 PM / 10 years ago

Cuba takes steps to spruce up tourism appeal

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has adopted a series of measures to improve the tourism industry’s competitive position in the Caribbean and reverse a two-year slide in visitors, state-media reported on Wednesday.

“Today the ministry is working on new investments and repairing hotels of historic interest in the cities,” Minister Manuel Marrero told parliament deputies on Tuesday, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.

“Another main objective ... is to add new services and make our offer more competitive in general,” he said.

Landing fees were recently reduced 20 percent at airports and jet fuel set at market prices to bring the communist-run island in line with other Caribbean destinations.

To reduce theft, local carrier Cubana Airlines is plastic wrapping all luggage, with the service optional for other airlines.

“Better late than never. We suggested the measures two years ago,” one foreign tour operator said of the changes.

“But package and hotel rates remain 20 percent less in the Dominican Republic, and in Cancun they are similar but the service is far superior,” he said. Like others interviewed, he asked not to be identified.

Tourism grew at a lofty 20 percent rate in the 1990s, becoming the country’s most important foreign exchange earner as the government restructured the economy to cope with the demise of benefactor the Soviet Union.

But services and nickel exports brought in more revenues than tourism’s $2.3 billion in 2006, and earn a much larger profit, Cuban economists report.

Visitors fell to 2.2 million last year from 2.3 million in 2005. It was the first drop since the September 11 attacks on the United States hurt the travel industry worldwide in 2002.

The number of tourists dropped 7 percent in January and 13 percent in February compared with the same period in 2006, the Tourism Ministry reported, before ending publication of monthly figures for the first time in years.

Minister Marrero blamed the “complicated international scene” for his sector’s woes, Granma said, in particular “high oil prices, wars, terrorism and climate change.”

Cuban and foreign hotel managers said U.S. travel restrictions and the embargo had also hurt, but they insisted the government could do far more to compensate.

“It still takes months to purchase a compressor for an air conditioner and there has been little money spent in recent years to maintain and improve service,” one foreign hotel manager said.

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