'There's no one': Cuba is suffering from tourism's standstill

Patrick Oppmann, CNNUpdated 2nd October 2020
Up next
Havana, Cuba (CNN) — For more than six months Cuba has maintained one of the tightest lockdowns anywhere in the world to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
All commercial air and maritime travel has been suspended since April 2, and anyone entering or leaving Cuba needs special government permission to do so.
While those restrictions have helped slow the virus' spread, they have also badly damaged the economy. On an island dependent on tourism, there are now virtually no tourists.
Alejandro, the driver of a classic 1954 Chevy convertible who asked we not use his last name, is just one Cuban who works in the tourism industry and is feeling the pain.
"There's no one," he gestured at the empty colonial streets of Old Havana. "There's no tourists, no income. We didn't think it would last this long."
Before the coronavirus sealed off Cuba, Alejandro made $30 an hour showing tourists the sights from his classic Chevy, which he painted hot pink to grab visitors' attention.
His savings long gone, Alejandro said friends from the US have wired him money to help him get by. He said he knows why vintage classic cars like his Chevy are now a rare sight on the streets of Havana.
"It uses a lot of gas," he said. "What if I get into an accident? I wouldn't be able to afford to fix my car, and I need to have it ready for when things open."
When exactly Cuba will reopen is a constant source of speculation for Cubans.
In March, after the first three cases of coronavirus -- visiting Italian tourists -- were detected, the communist-run government said it would heighten screening at airports and that the island's expansive, if battered, state-run medical system could offer visitors "safe tourism" during the pandemic.
But as the number of cases continued to rise, the Cuban government switched course and implemented a full lockdown.
All tourism was banned; bars, restaurants and even the beaches were closed.
cuba havana coronavirus pandemic lockdown Oppmann pkg intl ldn vpx_00002221
Cuba has been almost completely closed to tourism for months.
Brand new hotels just built by the Cuban government now stand roped off and empty inside. Old Havana's winding colonial streets -- which are usually packed with loud crowds of tourists and locals trying to sell them cigars and Che Guevara souvenirs -- are now as quiet as a museum.
The restrictions, which include mandatory face masks in public and travel restrictions inside Cuba, do appear to have had an effect.
To date, Cuba's health ministry says the island has had just 5,718 cases and 122 coronavirus deaths, lower numbers than many other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
In July, the Cuban government began to allow international visitors to travel to small, isolated cays off the Cuban mainland where they would not be able to mix with locals other than hotel staff. So far only a few plane loads of tourists have arrived.
The impact of six months with almost no tourism earnings is being felt across the island.
"When you talk to Cubans, especially those who work in the tourism industry, they are really hurting and obviously it's such an important industry here," said Collin Laverty, the president of Cuba Educational Travel, which before the shutdown organized cultural visits for Americans to Cuba.
"A lot of people who don't work in the industry but have family that do. There is a really challenging economic situation right now," he said.
Cuban officials originally said they wanted to bring the coronavirus fully under control before reopening, but in recent weeks have acknowledged the lockdown cannot continue much longer.
In late September, Cuban officials began to ease restrictions in Havana -- where the pandemic has hit hardest -- allowing restaurants to reopen at reduced capacity and permitting people to swim in the ocean and visit the beaches again.
While the Havana airport remained shut down, officials hinted that more lifting of restrictions was in the works.
"The country has to provide services, produce and export," said Luis Antonio Torres Iribar, the head of Civil Defense for Havana province. "Life has to continue."