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Media on
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
Watch out Cancun and Jamaica

CAYO COCO, Cuba - (Reuters) - Watch out Cancun and Jamaica -- When European charter airlines begin direct flights to this sandy key in the coming weeks, Cuba will be taking another step to recover its position as a premier tourist destination in the Caribbean. Flamingos, iguanas and alligators on a nature reserve are an added attraction for tourists looking to lie on sun-soaked snowy-white beaches and sip daiquiris. Last month, Cuba's communist authorities opened an international airport able to receive wide-bodied jets on Cayo Coco, the largest of a string of hundreds of keys along Cuba's north shore known as Jardines del Rey. Cuba has already built 11 high-end hotels on Cayo Coco and neighbouring Cayo Guillermo to draw vacationers from Canada, Britain, Germany and Spain. Havana is also banking on the lifting of a U.S. travel ban some time soon -- a move that would bring Americans to the Cuban keys, which are 250 miles (400 km) south of Nassau in the Bahamas. "Twenty years from now these keys could be the premier resort in the Caribbean," said Philip Agee, director of the Havana-based online travel agency cubalinda. "These islands go on and on for hundreds of miles and offer a fabulous combination of beach, scenery and wildlife. There is a huge market out there for almost virgin islands like these," said Agee, a former CIA agent. Proximity to the Gulf Stream allows for good sport fishing and Cuba plans a marina for 400 yachts and deep sea fishing boats. A golf course is also in the works on Cayo Coco. Spanish and Canadian entrepreneurs see potential in the islands and have invested through hotel management deals and joint ventures with Cuba's communist state. Spain's Sol Melia hotel chain runs six hotels in the Jardines del Rey keys, out of the 23 it manages in Cuba. The new airport is operated by AENA, a Spanish airport-management company. Regular charter flights are planned to Cayo Coco by Air Canada, Austrian carrier Lauda Air and Condor, Lufthansa's charter company. Tourism experts said the direct flights will give Jardines del Rey a boost because tourists will no longer have to travel overland from other Cuban airports. But the islands have an overcapacity of hotel rooms that may not get filled until American tourists arrive, they said. "Cayo Coco is a beautiful destination with a number of nice hotels. But some of them were built too quickly and seem too big. I'm not sure they can fill them all in the short run. Maybe when the American tourists arrive," said Bernd Herrmann, a Havana-based travel industry executive. Cuba was once the favourite Caribbean playground for Americans, when Mafia bosses ran Havana's nightlife. But the casinos and prostitution rings were shut after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. American-owned hotels were expropriated and tourism moved elsewhere, to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Jamaica, whose resorts partly owe their success to communism in Cuba. Cuba turned to tourism again, after the collapse of its international sponsor, the Soviet Union, over a decade ago, and the industry rapidly displaced sugar as the island's top earner of hard currency. The trade is recovering from the dip in world travel after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Last year, 1.7 million tourists visited Cuba, slightly below the number of arrivals in 2001 (1.77 million), generating $1.85 billion in badly needed cash for Cuba's dilapidated economy. Cuba estimates that more than 1 million Americans would visit as soon as Washington abolished the travel ban, which has been enforced for four decades as part of an economic embargo against Havana. U.S. cruise companies are planning to add Havana to their itineraries when that day comes. U.S. farmers and food industries are lobbying hard to end the travel restrictions so that Cuba can earn more dollars to pay for purchases of American food products allowed under a recent easing of the trade embargo.

Copyright 2002, Reuters News Service
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