HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba is struggling to wake up its tourism industry after months of pandemic-induced sleep as travelers stay away, threatening to derail the government’s plan to bail out the economy. a worsening crisis.

The communist-ruled island, long a popular Caribbean destination, has bet on tourism to fuel 4% economic growth this year after the coronavirus pandemic slashed production, leading to food and medicine shortages and power outages, and contributing to the largest anti-government protests since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Unlike many regional neighbors, some analysts believe Cuba has been cautious in responding to COVID-19. It kept its borders largely closed, with few exceptions, until mid-November 2020, when it vaccinated the majority of its population.

The move saw Cuba attract 67% fewer visitors in 2021 compared to 2020, and less than 10% of the 4.3 million arrivals in 2019, according to official data. The Caribbean as a whole, meanwhile, saw tourist numbers rebound 63% in 2021 while Cuba remained largely off-limits, according to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

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The data indicates that travelers have been slow to return to Cuba since the border reopened. In January, a popular month for Caribbean travel, only 84,000 tourists visited Cuba, down 80% from around 394,000 in 2020, and well below the pace needed to meet the country’s goal of 2.5 million visitors in 2022.

Empty beaches and hotels could deal another blow to Cuba’s struggling and inefficient state economy, which depends on foreign currency from tourism, which accounts for 10% of GDP, to buy basics such as food and medicines on the world market.

Independent experts and Cuban tourism operators consulted by Reuters say Cuba will struggle to recover ground lost during the pandemic, largely plagued by ongoing US restrictions that have all but eliminated travel between Cuba and the large US market.

Measures adopted by US President Donald Trump as he sought to take a tougher line on Cuba included ending cruise ship calls, restricting flights and blacklisting a long list of hotels and other entities.

Tourism industry hopes that Trump’s successor Joe Biden would revoke the sanctions have yet to bear fruit, with the Cuban government’s heavy-handed response to protests last year drawing strong rebuke from administration.

News of the protests, backlash and economic hardship were also likely delaying the return of tourists from outside the United States, said Paolo Spadoni, a Cuban economics expert at Augusta University in Georgia.

That includes Canadian and Latin American travelers, who previously visited the island frequently, he said.

“All these negative headlines haven’t helped Cuba attract more tourists,” he said.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

Pablo Perez, a 53-year-old who sells handicrafts to tourists in downtown Havana, said bad news amid the pandemic had unfairly doomed Cuba.

“It hurt us economically,” Perez said. “The cruise ships are gone. There are a lot of hotels that have been built but are still empty because tourism has gone down.”

But Spadoni said Cuba has always been considered by travelers to be off the beaten path.

“Cuba is an adventure, a unique destination for many and with the pandemic these people are looking for familiar and safe places and not risks,” he said. “Cuba now has competitive (health) protocols, so let’s hope the headlines improve.”

(Reporting by Marc Frank and Reuters TV, Editing by Dave Sherwood and Rosalba O’Brien)

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