Cuba sees 13 pct hike in tourism revenue in 2008

The Associated Press HAVANA Cuba saw record tourism in 2008 that generated more than $2.7 billion in revenue, a 13.5 percent increase over the previous year, the government reported. Some 2.35 million foreigners visited the island last year, 9.3 percent more than in 2007, according to a National Office of Statistics report posted online this week. The visitor surge helped the industry earn about $326 million more than it did in 2007. The report did not say how much profit the sector generated.

Cuban tourism has remained strong while visitors to other Caribbean destinations have dropped amid the world financial crisis. International travel operators say the island remains popular because many visitors can buy relatively cheap, all-inclusive packages and can budget trip costs well in advance. At the same time, the financial crunch has not yet hit hard in Canada, the top source of Cuba’s visitors.

Washington’s nearly 50-year-old trade embargo effectively bans U.S. tourists from Cuba. But Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany follow Canada as the top suppliers of tourists.

The banner year for tourism came after foreign visitor rates dipped in 2006 and 2007. The government offered no explanation for the decline, but the island has relatively low returning visitor rates. Some tourists complain of poor service, spotty infrastructure and lousy food, indicative of a communist system where shortages are common and state employees feel little motivation to excel at their jobs.

State media reported Monday that Cuba’s nickel industry out-earned tourism in 2008, becoming the top source of government revenue for the second straight year. The government didn’t say how much income the nickel industry generated.

Cuba: Nickel again earned more than tourism in ’08

AP: HAVANA — Cuba produced 70,400 tons of nickel in 2008, helping the industry surpass tourism as the communist-run island’s top source of revenue for the second consecutive year, state media reported Monday.

The government news agency Prensa Latina said nickel “again achieved economic superiority over tourism,” but did not release reliable figures on how much the industry made.

Neither has the government released exact tourism revenue. But in 2008, the industry recorded a 9.3 percent growth in foreign visitors, setting a new tourist record and almost certainly generating more than the $2.2 billion it made in 2007.

Cuba is the world’s sixth-leading producer of nickel and cobalt. The government announced last year that for the first time, nickel had exceeded tourism as the island’s top economic driver. But it has never been entirely clear by how much nickel is outpacing the vacation industry.

Prensa Latina said nickel production remained strong in 2008, despite a drop in the metal’s international value from $53,000 per ton to $9,000 per ton due to the global financial crisis.

Nickel is an essential ingredient in stainless steel and in electronics, including computers, monitor screens and other appliances.

The U.S. embargo prohibits American companies from purchasing nickel and other Cuban products, but the island is an important supplier for China and Canada.

New President, Hurricanes, Bye Bye Camels

HAVANA TIMES, December 31. -The year 2008 was one of important changes and events in Cuba. It will pass into history as the year when Raul Castro was elected president replacing retiring Fidel Castro; as the year of three terrible hurricanes, Gustav, Ike and Paloma; the year the “camels” disappeared from Havana and other important social and economic reforms. Havana Times brings you some of the most significant happenings of the year.

January: Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made his second official visit to Cuba. General elections were held for the national and provincial parliaments with a 95 percent voter turnout. Former CIA agent Phillip Agee, 72, dies in Havana. Venezuela and Cuba sign a new package of joint ventures and projects involving US $1.355 billion. Vice President Carlos Lage attended the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) Summit in Caracas. Hundred year old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer donates monument at Havana’s Computer Science University.

February: Raul Castro was elected the new president of Cuba; Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was elected first vice president, along with five other vice presidents. Relations strengthened between Cuba and the Catholic Church with the visit of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Cuba International Book Festival and Havana Jazz Plaza Festival were held attracting visitors, authors and musicians from many countries. Sergio Corrieri, president of the Cuban Friendship Institute died at 69, and the president of Equatorial Guinea visited the island.

March: For the first time Cuban stores sell a number of home appliances including microwave ovens, DVDs, computers, electric cookers, etc. that previously could only be brought from abroad by individuals under a series of regulations. Likewise, the right to purchase a cell phone line was extended to Cubans, previously limited to foreigners. Also in March, Cuba received visits from the President of Mozambique, Armando Emilio Guebuza and Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias. The annual Terry Fox Run to combat cancer took place and Raul Castro met with Spanish singer/songwriter Luis Eduardo Aute.

April: Santiago de Cuba wins the Cuban Baseball Championship sweeping the final series 4-0 over Pinar del Rio. Cubans are permitted to stay at hotels previously only for tourists or foreign residents as long as they have the money to pay for their room. Staying at a hotel had been available only as a prize for outstanding workers or leaders of organizations. Panamanian President Martin Torrijos visits Cuba and the two countries signed an energy cooperation accord. The Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) held their 7th Congress attended by President Raul Castro and other leaders. The 6th Low-Budget Film Festival took place in Gibara, Holguin and the 10th International Conference on African and Afro-American Culture took place in Santiago de Cuba. The government announces the replacement of Luis Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez as minister of education by Ana Elsa Velazquez Cobiella, who headed a teacher training school in Santiago de Cuba.

 Bye bye to Havana’s “Camels”

Bye bye to Havana’s “Camels”

Evo Morales and Raul Castro

Evo Morales and Raul Castro

May: The annual May Day rally brings labor leaders from around the world to the Cuban capital. Disappearance from Havana streets of the famous “camels”, a rustic means of trailer-truck public transportation introduced at the height of the crisis of the early 1990s, replaced mainly by modern articulated Chinese buses. Bolivian President Evo Morales visits Cuba and meets with both Fidel and Raul Castro. Also visiting the island were the prime ministers of Jamaica, Bruce Golding and Antigua and Barbuda, Baldwin Spencer. Cubadisco issues its 2008 Awards.

June: Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez travels to Cuba with a large delegation of officials and business people. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of Atlanta announces its ruling on the defense appeal in the Cuban Five case. The divided court upholds two sentences and sends three back to Miami for re-sentencing. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visits Havana to meet with Raul and Fidel Castro.

Pastors for Peace

Pastors for Peace

July: Pastors for Peace make their 19th trip with a load of donations to Cuba in an open challenge to the US blockade on the island. The Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC) held their 8th Congress where Tubal Paez was reelected president. Cuban choreographer Lizt Alfonso, director of the Lizt Alfonso Ballet Company, won the Dora Prize for Outstanding Choreography in a Play or Musical in Canada for her show “Vida” (Life). The 55th anniversary of the July 26th National Rebelliousness Day was celebrated in Santiago de Cuba. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visits the island.

Dayron Robles won a gold medal in Beijing

Dayron Robles won a gold medal in Beijing

August: Cuba participates in the Beijing Olympic Games with a delegation of 165 athletes who won 24 medals (2 gold, 11 silver and 11 bronze). On the final day of the month, Catergory-4 Hurricane Gustav caused enormous destruction in Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth, although no lives were lost. Barbados Prime Minister David John Howard Thompson visits Cuba.

The government offered farmers more land, photo by Caridad

The government offered farmers more land, photo by Caridad

September: Hurricane Ike, also a Category-4 storm, crosses the island devastating parts of eastern Holguin, Las Tunas, Camaguey and other provinces before reentering the western part of the country virtually in the same place as Gustav 10 days earlier, worsening the situation in those areas. Financial crisis in the United States spreads and threatens markets around the world. Cuban First Vice-President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura addresses the 63rd UN General Assembly in New York demanding a new and fairer world order. Program to grant more land to Cuban farmers speeded up in effort to greatly increase farm production.

Sleeping Beauty at Int. Ballet Festival

Sleeping Beauty at Int. Ballet Festival, photo by Caridad

October: Cuba and the European Union (EU) officially renewed cooperation with a joint statement signed by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and European Commissioner Louis Michel. Cuban National Ballet celebrates its 60th anniversary during the 21st International Ballet Festival of Havana. The Cuban film Kangamba premieres, narrating a dramatic episode of the decisive Cuban military involvement in Angola in the 1970s and 80s. The United Nations approves the Cuban resolution condemning the US blockade of the island by a vote of 185-3 with only Israel and Palau supporting the United States in its dissent. Los Van Van play for hurricane victims in Pinar del Rio. Cuba’s Ministry of Labor gives state institutions and businesses until mid-December to institute new pay incentives for greater worker productivity. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visits Cuba and invites President Raul Castro to attend the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development on Dec.16-17 in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Cuba’s first Russian Orthodox Church was consecrated in Havana in a ceremony attended by President Raul Castro.

November: Russian President Dimitri Medvedev visits Cuba, the first Russian President to do so in eight years. He held meetings with both Fidel and Raul Castro. Cuba also received an important state visit from Chinese President Hu Jintao who met with the Cuban leaders and took part in the signing of new bilateral cooperation accords. The 26th Havana International Trade Fair took place; the week-long event is the islands most important commercial gathering. Powerful Hurricane Paloma becomes the third major cyclone to hit Cuba in seven weeks, devastating communities on the southern coast of Camaguey and Las Tunas before weakening over land. The Gen Rosso International Performing Arts Group of Italy performs in several Cuban locations including a stint at Havana’s Mella Theater. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque meets in Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Benicio del Toro in Havana to present “Che”, photo by Caridad

Benicio del Toro in Havana to present “Che”, photo by Caridad

December: The Jo Jazz 2008 Festival with the islands’ top young musicians took place in Havana. Likewise, the 30th edition of the popular Havana Film Festival where the two-part Steven Soderbergh film “Che” got its Cuban premiere with the actor, producers and other members of the cast on hand. Leaders of the 14 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) were in Santiago de Cuba for the 3rd Cuba-CARICOM Summit. Raul Castro made his first trip abroad as the Cuban President, traveling to Venezuela and then to Brazil to attend the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development and other parallel events including a summit of the Rio Group which officially included Cuba as a full member. Cuban parliament ups retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men. British Novelist Harold Pinter a Nobel Prize laureate and friend of Cuba died at 78. Cuba condemned Israel’s end of year bombing offense against the Gaza Strip.

Web site lets Cubans abroad buy gifts on island

The Associated Press.

A country that shunned Christmas for decades is now looking to cash in on the holiday season, promoting an online shopping site designed to let Cubans overseas buy everything from flowers to flat-screen TVs for delivery to relatives on the island.

Spanish-based Grupo Excelencias teamed with Cuba’s communist government to create, which offers prices in U.S. dollars and says it can deliver products within 24 hours to homes in Havana and get purchases to even the country’s most-remote addresses within three weeks.

‘It’s a good business but it’s also a way for Cubans (overseas) to help their family members here,’ Sergio Perez, the Havana director of the Spanish-language site, said Tuesday.

It also appears to directly challenge U.S. legal limits on shipping funds to Cuba or spending money on the island.

Dozens of the products listed are made in Cuba _ like Havana Club rum or iconic guayabera shirts. Others are imports already stocked by upscale government-run stores, such as 29-inch Panasonic TVs or crunchy peanut butter from Canada.

The site was created in August 2006, but Cuba’s government has been promoting it heavily over the Christmas holiday.

Cuba officially canceled Christmas as a holiday in 1966 and long discouraged citizens from openly celebrating it. But the Communist Party temporarily reinstated Dec. 25 as a holiday in 1998 after Pope John Paul II’s visit, and schools, government offices and businesses have begun to routinely close on Christmas in recent years.

This holiday season, baggers and cashiers at state boutiques are passing out copper-hued business cards bearing the mallhabana Web address and the slogan ‘Your Friendly Purchases’ to shoppers in Havana, hoping to entice purchases from visiting exiles.

The cards attracted so much attention that the luxury Palco supermarket on Havana’s western outskirts quickly ran out. The store sells expensive, mostly imported, goods to foreign diplomats, tourists and Cubans lucky enough to have hard currency.

Perez said the Web site has 20,000 registered customers and generates ‘millions of dollars annually’ in sales, though he declined to give specifics.

Payment requires a non-U.S. credit card _ a rarity among Cubans in the United States _ or direct money transfers to Excelencias’ Spanish accounts. Customers can also purchase U.S. money orders and ship them to company representatives in Canada, Perez said.

Such transactions would seemingly violate Washington’s nearly 50-year-old trade embargo, which generally prohibits most Americans and U.S. residents from doing business with this country and buying products of Cuban origin. The restrictions can even sometimes apply to third-country companies that operate on the island.

A U.S. Treasury Department spokesman in Washington declined to comment specifically on the case. But Ninoska Perez Castellon, a Miami radio and TV host, said U.S. authorities have shut down similar such Web sites based outside Cuba in the past and she expects U.S. authorities will take similar action this time.

‘Apparently they think they can violate the law. It’s really pathetic,’ said Perez Castellon, a member of the Cuban Liberty Council, an exile group that opposes Fidel Castro and the Cuban government. ‘It’s the law, it’s clear and they are violating it.’

But back in Havana, Sergio Perez maintained that the site is doing nothing wrong.

‘The company is Spanish and the United States can’t do anything,’ said Perez, who is not related to Perez Castellon. ‘Anyway, we carefully guard the information of our registered clients.’

The site features a limited range of products at what Americans would consider sky-high prices.

The first item listed under ‘computing’ is a set of eight crayons. Further down the page, a Dell computer that would retail for roughly $450 in the U.S. is offered ‘on sale’ for $1,424. Imported products in Cuba are routinely marked up to over twice their retail value overseas, however.

Cuban state transportation company Transval, whose wide range of duties include managing a fleet of armored cars for Cuban banks, is in charge of home delivery of products bought online.

Even though Cuba has teamed up with foreign providers to offer Web-based shopping in the past, a special effort to promote buying for the winter holidays is unprecedented.

President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing 82-year-old brother Fidel in February, has lifted bans on Cubans buying DVD players, computers, electric rice cookers and other coveted consumer goods, but prices remain too high for many on the island to afford.

Cuban Parliament Calls Sessions for December 27 at the Havana Convention Center

President of the Cuban Parliament Ricardo Alarcon called the 2nd period of the 7th Parliament Session for December 27 at the Havana Convention Center.

The 12 Cuban permanent parliamentary commissions are expected to be in session before the meeting.

The commissions are expected to discuss Foreign Affairs, Education, Culture, Science, Technology and Environment, Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Services and Economy.

Other issues to be discussed during the sessions are the problems of the Youth and Childhood, Women Rights, local parliamentary issues, Health and Sports, Energy and Environment, National Defense, and Industry and Construction.

Sessions of the parliamentary commissions are expected to open December 23, attended by delegates from all Cuban provinces.


Cuba greets its 2 millionth tourist with music, mojitos

wedding with tourists in Trinidad, Cuba

wedding with tourists in Trinidad, Cuba

HAVANA — Cuba welcomed its 2 millionth tourist of 2008 last week with a salsa band, strong mojitos and word that the island expects to set a record this year for foreign visitors despite three hurricanes and a global economic crisis.

Authorities hung a red-and-white banner reading “welcome visitor” in five languages just outside the customs area as Air Canada Flight 370 from Toronto touched down at Havana Airport.

“Is this a nice way to start? I’ll say!” said Helen Lueke, a secretary in her 60s from Sherwood Park, Alberta, who comes to Cuba about once a year — but has never been greeted at the airport with mojitos.

Cuba didn’t single out a visitor as No. 2 million. Instead, it symbolically marked the flight’s arrival along with similar celebrations at international airports in the eastern city of Santiago and in Varadero, the famous beach resort northeast of Havana.

Alexis Trujillo, first vice minister of tourism, said Cuba has surpassed 2 million annual foreign visitors every year since 2004.

But Nov. 14 is the earliest date the communist nation has ever reached the mark, he added, leading Cuba to predict it would pass its 2005 record of 2.3 million visitors.

Trujillo said tourism is up 10.7 percent compared with last year, despite hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, which destroyed nearly half a million homes and did more than $10 billion in damage when they roared through the island in recent weeks.

Hotels, restaurants and other tourist sites were damaged in coastal areas in the provinces of Camaguey and Holguin, as well as in tobacco-growing Pinar del Rio.

But the storms spared Cuba’s top tourist destinations: Havana’s crumbling but majestic, decades-old architecture, and Varadero, which Trujillo said would attract 1 million foreign visitors alone this year for the first time.

Washington’s trade embargo discourages most Americans from coming to Cuba.

But Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as the island’s top sources of visitors.

Foreign tourists to Cuba topped 2.3 million in 2005 but fell in 2006 and slipped again to 2.1 million last year — dealing a financial blow to a nation that relies on tourism for much of its hard-currency revenue. The industry brought in $2.2 billion in 2007.

Cuba Expects 2.3 Million Tourists for 2008

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 16 – Cuba reached two million tourists for 2008 on Friday and expects to surpass the record of 2.3 million visitors set in 2005. First Deputy Minister of Tourism Alexis Trujillo headed the welcoming party at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport for the group of visitors that completed the milestone. While the US blockade prohibits its citizens from traveling to Cuba, the island receives large numbers of Canadians and Europeans.