By Mario Fuentes
TRINIDAD, Cuba (Reuters) – In the colonial Cuban city of Trinidad, handicrafts shop owner Lourdes Milan says she has already slashed prices due to the drop in U.S. visitors following Washington’s tightening of sanctions and she’s worried the situation will worsen this year.
Trinidad, a five-hour drive east of Havana, was one of the top destinations for the Americans that poured into Cuba after the Obama administration eased decades-old restrictions on travel to the island during a short-lived 2014-2016 detente.
But the number of U.S. visitors dropped by 21.9% last year after the Trump administration tightened those restrictions again and banned the recently re-instated cruises, according to data published this month in Cuban state magazine Excelencias.
The U.S. visitors number will likely drop again this year due to new U.S. curbs on U.S. flights to Cuba that have come into effect since December.
“We are reducing prices to the minimum because there is very little tourism,” said Milan, who had not sold a single product by midday despite January being high season for tourism in Cuba.
The total number of visitors to the island dropped by 9.6% last year to 4.275 million, according to Excelencias.
Slight rises in arrivals of Cubans living abroad and Canadians were unable to compensate for the double-digit decline in U.S. visitors – mostly via cruise ships – and a smaller drop in European tourists.
Paolo Spadoni, associate professor in the department of social sciences at Augusta University in the state of Georgia, said the full impact of the U.S. ban on cruises would be felt even more this year, as it was implemented last June.
Moreover, the Trump administration barred U.S. airlines from flying to all destinations in Cuba besides Havana in December and announced this month it would curb public charter flights too.
“Now, all itineraries have to start in Havana, which means they cost more,” Liliana Guerra, commercial vice director at Cienfuegos’ Hotel Jagua, run by the Spanish hotel chain Melia, said in front of a swimming pool devoid of guests.
“We are seeing a decrease in the arrival of Cubans from abroad who used these airports nearby to visit their families and then would stay in our hotel as a kind of family tourism.”
The tourism ministry’s delegate in Cienfuegos, Jose Gonzalez, said U.S. sanctions on oil shipments to Cuba were also having a knock-on effect. Some boat operators, for example, have had to shut sporadically due to lack of fuel.
(Reporting by Mario Fuentes in Trinidad, Cuba; Writing by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Paul Simao)