Cuba sees tourism rise, French will ren­o­vate Ha­vana air­port

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | TRAVEL - By AN­DREA RODRÍGUEZ and MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN in Ha­vana

More than 2 mil­lion tourists have vis­ited Cuba this year, state me­dia said last Wed­nes­day, putting the coun­try on track for a record num­ber of visi­tors bring­ing badly needed cash to an econ­omy fac­ing a sharp re­duc­tion in sub­si­dized oil from its chief ally, Venezuela.

Tourism Min­is­ter Manuel Mar­rero said vis­i­tor num­bers were run­ning 12 per­cent ahead of those last year, which al­ready saw a record num­ber of tourists. The surge is cred­ited to a wave of in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in Cuba prompted by the an­nounce­ment of US-Cuba de­tente in De­cem­ber 2014. Vis­i­tor num­bers are ex­pected to get a ma­jor boost after com­mer­cial flights from the United States be­gin this month.

The rise in tourism has strained Cuba’s in­fra­struc­ture, fill­ing ho­tels to ca­pac­ity and cre­at­ing long waits at Ha­vana’s Jose Marti In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The gov­ern­ment an­nounced last Wed­nes­day that Aero­ports de Paris, the French gov­ern­ment-con­trolled firm that runs Charles de Gaulle, Orly and other Paris air­ports, would re­ceive a con­ces­sion to op­er­ate Jose Marti, which would be ren­o­vated by the French firm Bouygues.

The an­nounce­ment con­tained no de­tails but up­dat­ing the air­port to re­ceive hun­dreds of thou­sands more tourists a year will al­most cer­tainly be­come one of the most im­por­tant in­fra­struc­ture projects in Cuba, and the largest French-Cuban deal since Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande vis­ited the is­land in May 2015.

A spokesman for Aero­ports de Paris de­clined im­me­di­ate com­ment.

Mar­rero said Cuba ex­pects to re­ceive 3.8 mil­lion tourists this year. Jose­fina Vi­dal, Cuba’s head of US re­la­tions, said on Twit­ter last week that 138,000 Amer­i­cans vis­ited in the first half of 2016, an 80 per­cent in­crease that made the US the sec­ond-largest source of visi­tors after Canada.

Cuba has be­come in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on tourism as Venezuela has cut back on the sup­ply of cheap oil sent in ex­change for Cuban doc­tors to staff neigh­bor­hood med­i­cal clin­ics. Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro warned last month that the coun­try faced sharply slower growth this year, and the econ­omy ex­panded by a mere 1 per­cent in the first half of 2016.

Cuba has be­gun cut­ting back on en­ergy use, pri­mar­ily in gov­ern­ment of­fices, where work­ers are be­ing told to leave early and cut back on air con­di­tion­ing.

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