(Trinidad) Despite the end of the pandemic, Cuba is still struggling to regain a flourishing tourism, vital for its economy. In Trinidad, the jewel of the island, the high season has proved to be “irregular”, testify the operators who hope for a return of Russian visitors and the opening of new markets.

“Little by little, we are getting back on our feet”, but “everything is not yet back” as before the pandemic, says Norelvis Vegas Torres who takes tourists in a horse-drawn carriage through the alleys of the city, located 350 km to the south -east of Havana.

Like the vast majority of the 76,000 inhabitants of the colonial city, classified as a World Heritage Site since 1988, this 33-year-old father depends on tourism to survive. And the 2023 high season, from December to April, has been “unstable”, with ups and downs, he explains.

“Compared to the period before COVID-19, we have a 25% drop in terms of occupancy,” confirms Yami Martinez, 48, owner of a nine-room guesthouse for ten years.

After the historic surge in 2018 (4.7 million tourists, $3.3 billion in revenue), in the wake of diplomatic warming with the United States three years earlier, hard blows have followed for tourism Cuban: resurgence of American sanctions under Donald Trump (2017-2021), pandemic, then war in Ukraine, not to mention internal economic difficulties.

“It’s very difficult with the problems of electricity and transport,” Ms. Martinez notes, in an allusion to the frequent power cuts that affect the country and the fuel shortages that have worsened recently, and do not spare always tourists.

Reinaldo Vivas, a 55-year-old restaurateur, had to resolve to halve the capacity of his restaurant, when he could serve up to 250 covers daily when the American liners, which have not been able to dock on the island since Donald Trump’s sanctions, stopped off not far from Trinidad.

“Before the pandemic, tourism was stable,” he explains. This year, “the high season has not been so high […] and we are more dependent on individual tourism. Previously, group tourism was more important.”

The hotels being the property of the State, group tourism makes it possible to fill the coffers of the country. However, according to official figures, the hotel occupancy rate in Cuba peaked at 15.6% in 2022, compared to 75.9% in Cancún (Mexico) and 70.3% for the Dominican Republic, other flagship destinations in the Caribbean. .

In early May, Minister Juan Carlos Garcia acknowledged that the recovery was not complete for this sector which, before the pandemic, represented the second source of income after the export of medical services. It has maintained the target of 3.5 million visitors for 2023. Last year, 1.6 million tourists visited the island against 2.5 million expected.

Tourism from Canada, essentially seaside and the main market for Cuba, “recovered at 80% compared to 2019 and now represents 50% of the tourists we receive”, said Mr. Garcia.

“But the same cannot be said for the other important market, which is European countries,” he added, citing inflation, the conflict in Ukraine and rising air transport costs among other factors. .

In a context of close diplomatic and economic rapprochement with Moscow in recent months, the communist island is banking on the return of Russian groups, with a strengthening of air links between the two countries.

Thus, the Venezuelan company Conviasa has been offering Caracas-Havana-Moscow connections since mid-June, while direct flights between the Russian capital and the seaside resort of Varadero are due to resume in July.

Reinaldo Vivas confirms that “we see more Russian tourists” recently in Trinidad, while Muscovites are seated in his establishment.

Local operators are also seeing an increase in the number of Turkish visitors. “Before, we saw few of them, there are a lot of groups,” says Vivian Maité Hernandez, a painter who works in a craft shop.

To satisfy these new customers, some craftsmen have already adapted: alongside portraits of Che Guevara and paintings showing the famous American sedans, new canvases have appeared, representing the “hand of Fatima”, a symbol supposed to bring good luck to the Middle East. East.