CUBA was hit hard less than six months ago by a hurricane that caused considerable damage to the country's four principal tourist destinations. It is the only island nation in the world which, by law, U.S. citizens are not allowed to visit as tourists, and figures among the countries which Washington has singled out with travel advisories, recommending that travelers "reconsider" visiting.

Nevertheless, as of this month, theyear's first million visitors have arrived in Cuba, some 67,000 hotel rooms are available, along with more than 21,000 family bed and breakfasts, while 68 airlines operate flights linking the island to 70 important cities around the world. Cruise lines with six ports of call and stopovers located on the island make this modality increasingly popular, and the country was recently recognized as the "most secure for tourism" at the 38th international Tourism Fair (Fitur), in Madrid.

Changes in the panorama have created difficulties, but the country continues as one of the Caribbean's favorite destinations. According to statements by Janet Ayala, the Ministry of Tourism's public information officer, although the figure of one million visitors was reached four days later than last year, it remains a notable accomplishment given the pressures and adverse conditions faced by the sector over this last period.

After the storm

Irma struck Cuba in the month of September, and just days before its arrival, 88.5% of all tourists in the country were staying in hotels along the island's northern coastline, precisely the area where the hurricane made landfall and caused the most damage. From beach resorts on Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, and Cayo Santa María, alone, 10,625 visitors were evacuated.

More than 70% of the hotels on these northern keys suffered damage, as well as 26% of the accommodations farther west in Varadero, the country's most important beach resort. The main impact was seen on landscaping, light roofing, false ceilings, glass panes, and aluminum trim, according to Manuel Marrero Cruz, who leads the country's Ministry of Tourism (Mintur).

Over the following three months (October, November, and December) the number of tourists arriving declined, reflecting the erroneous but widespread belief that "everything was in bad shape and it was impossible for Cuba to recover before the high season," Marrero stated. Nonetheless, some 4,700,000 visitors traveled to the island in 2017, 11.9% more than projected.

"I am super surprised," an Argentine, visiting Jardines del Rey in November, told Granma International, "I've asked around, and really could not believe the speed with which everything was restored. They told me how the hotel was left (after the hurricane), and how all the employees helped accelerate the process. I was a bit apprehensive because the date was so close to what had happened, but everything is impeccable."

Fifteen days after the hurricane work began, and just 40-odd days later, by November 1, clients were arriving at the northern key resorts, more than 3,210 to Jardines del Rey, alone.

When the high season began, facilities had been completely renovated, as was the case in Varadero, where in only two months time the resort was fully refurbished, thanks to more than 2,000 workers who assumed the task, with the active collaboration of hotel staffs., According to Ivis Fernández Peña, head of the Ministry of Tourism's office in the province of Matanzas, the resort's 52 hotels now boast improved conditions and infrastructure

A question of security

The U.S. State Department has deemed Cuba unsafe, advising travelers to "reconsider" trips to Cuba, asserting that serious security risks exist. In its new U.S. travel advisory system, the country is rated as a three on a scale of four, in terms of potential risks.

Around the same time these unjustified statements were made, January 18 to be exact, Cuba received an Excellence Prize as the "safest country for tourism," at the 38th International Tourism Fair (Fitur) in Madrid. Journalist Christopher P. Baker commented on the website, "I've always considered Cuba to be the safest place in the Americas outside Canada… the notion of Cuba being unsafe is bogus."

Despite the blockade and continuing restrictions on conducting tourism in Cuba, arrivals of visitors from the U.S. increased significantly after the Obama administration eased the licensing system for travel to Cuba. In 2017, Cuba received 620,000 U.S. travelers and established a record for international visitors. According to Cuba Educational Travel, the vast majority consider the country "very safe."

Experiences reported and surveys conducted indicate that visitors have been satisfied with their trips to Cuba, confirming that Cuba is secure, tranquil, and stable, characteristics also recognized by United Nations international agencies, and other specialized tourism groups. At the same time, leading companies have praised the country's standards of quality and comfort.

Likewise, members of a U.S. Congressional delegation which visited the island recently, along with their families, said they felt safe here. Representative Jim McGovern reported that he met with U.S. students pursuing degrees at the University of Havana, saying, "They feel safe," and "I have spoken with business people; they feel safe, as do Americans working at the diplomatic mission."

Cruise ships in Cuba

Cuba has unique characteristics that attract tourism, in particular cruises, thanks to its privileged geographic position, commented Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment. This modality has expanded, with additional routes from the United States, increasing both the number of ships and passengers arriving. According to information provided by the Ministry, of the four million tourists who visited Cuba in 2017, 112,000 arrived aboard cruise ships.

Although the Trump administration, in June of last year, announced a series of measures that limit travel between the two countries with strict Treasury Department regulations, four U.S. cruise lines continue to operate in Cuba - Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL), Norwegian Cruise Line Holding (NCLH), and Pearl Seas LLP - and a fifth is expected soon.

"Of the company's 500 destinations, Havana is number one in satisfaction among our clients. Many of my colleagues repeat this same comment, showing that Cuba has something to offer," said Frank Del Río, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO, during a meeting between leaders of the world's principal cruise lines and Cuban authorities, held in November of 2017 to discuss the potential for expanding operations in the country.

Since the Obama era, Cuba has signed memoranda of understanding with port authorities in several U.S. cities in the states of Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Ohio, which is key to developing the cruise industry. However, the current President's measures not only restrict U.S. citizens' right to travel, but also that of the country's businesses to operate here - affecting the majority of those in the tourism sector.

Given this scenario and the blockade's limitations, progress in bilateral relations is hampered, especially in terms of maritime-port activity, which Cuban authorities are looking to develop with an extensive program of investment in infrastructure. The project is intended to strengthen cruise tourism in different parts of the country, to ensure that this industry continues to grow every year.

The U.S. based Carnival Cruise Line has announced 17 new trips to Cuba for 2019, aboard the Carnival Sensation, with five-day voyages departing from South Florida. According to the news agency Prensa Latina, the itineraries include a day in Havana, and stops in other popular Caribbean ports, including the Bahamas.

Christine Duffy, Carnival Cruise Line president, stated that Cuba is a much-sought destination, and the company is thrilled to be offering their clients more opportunities to experience and explore "this fascinating island."

Keeping up the pace

Cuba's tourist sector, included in the country's National Social and Economic Development Plan through 2030, has identified diversification as one of its objectives, and is working to provide new options. History, culture, architecture, hiking, nature and urban tourism are among the new offerings being consolidated.

Along these lines, expanding the number of marinas and nautical centers in the country has been projected, as well as constructing new golf courses and condominiums. The holding of conventions, congresses , and fairs is also prioritized, and special attention afforded to health and quality of life tourism.

Efforts are also being made to recover a number of events and incentive travel, "modalities featuring large volumes of visitors, usually with exhibitors accompanied by their families," explained Minister Marrero, during the National Assembly 8th Legislature's 10th Ordinary Period of Sessions.

Promoting sustainable tourism is another imperative. In this regard, the Council of Ministers had approved a plan to confront climate change, with the implementation of a number of environmental regulations, including those addressing coastal land use and the demolition of structures constructed on sand dunes.

The national tourism industry is currently immersed in an investment process with a view toward renovating and increasing accommodations capacity. A detailed plan through 2030, and favorable conditions for the sector, allow for the projection of five million visitors in 2018 and growth on the order of 6%.