Cubans give warm welcome to British cruise liner

Guardian: Cuba has given a warm welcome to a British cruise liner in an effort to boost tourism and step back from Fidel Castro’s remarks that such visitors merely dumped “trash … for a few miserable cents”.

Havanans waved, a salsa band played and showgirls shimmied as the nine-deck Thomson Dream became one of the biggest ships to dock in Cuba for years.

Waiters greeted disembarking passengers with shots of Havana Club rum yesterday in a clear message from the government that the cash-strapped communist island was keen to welcome back cruise liners.

“People were leaning out of windows waving at us and we were waving back. It was really enthusiastic,” Richard Ring, a British passenger, told Reuters.

Shouting over the salsa din, the 40-year-old said it was the warmest greeting of a 14-day Caribbean cruise that included stops at Barbados, Grenada and Curacao.

José Manuel Bisbé, at the tourism ministry, said Cuba had signed deals with European cruise operators to make such visits a regular event. “We think that more than anything, this change reflects the operators’ understanding of all Cuba’s attributes as a destination,” he said.

It also represents a U-turn from Castro’s 2005 broadside that cruises were “floating hotels, floating restaurants, floating theatres, floating diversions” that “visit countries to leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents”.

The then-president cancelled an Italian firm’s contract to run Cuba’s cruise terminals. A year later, a Spanish ship, Pullmantur, bypassed the island after being bought by an American firm subject to the US embargo. Cruise visitor numbers fell from 102,000 in 2005 to 10,000 last year.

Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother as president, hopes to ease an economic crisis by boosting tourism – a major revenue source – at the same time as cutting 500,000 state jobs as well as subsidies.

Each passenger spent an average of $50 (£32) to $200 a day in Cuba, Bisbé said, raising hopes that “several million dollars” would be injected into the economy.

Tourism revenues grew by 3.5% in the first nine months of last year and visitor numbers increased by 50,000 to 1.89 million, according to official figures. Most were Canadians and Britons, although the number of Americans rose in response to the US relaxing a travel ban.