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Due To COVID-19 Concerns, Cuba Will Isolate Visitors From Main Island Population

HAVANA -— With the coronavirus waning in Cuba, the government plans to restart its tourism industry by sending visitors to five narrow islands that will offer all-inclusive vacations and keep foreigners isolated from the rest of the nation.

The state-run system, which debuted last week, is designed to reopen a vital source of economic activity without reintroducing the virus to the country of 11 million people, where new cases have dwindled to just a handful a day.

Women wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus chat on a corner in Old Havana, one using a piece of styrofoam to shade herself, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 23, 2020. All of Cuba has moved to phase one with the exception of Havana, the capital of 2 million people where the small number of new daily cases of COVID-19 has been concentrated. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Tourists will take charter flights to the islands or to central Cuba, where they will take tests to detect the virus. Those who are negative will proceed straight to their hotels or get on a bus going directly through mainland Cuba to one of the low-lying, sandy keys that are connected to the northern coast by bridges or ferries, according to recent government statements.

Anyone who tests positive will be “isolated,” presumably some combination of being quarantined and sent back home, though the details remain unclear.

Hotel maintenance worker Elgis Moreno is reflected on a mirror as he paints a room at the Capri Hotel, during a lockdown affecting tourism to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Foreign hospitality companies that manage most of the better hotels say they are hopeful to see tourists return at the latter stages of the country’s opening plan, and Cuba says more normal tourism will return to the island by phase 3 with near-universal mask-wearing, social distancing, and COVID-19 tests for arriving travelers. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Many other Caribbean islands are reopening to tourists and imposing testing on new arrivals. But none has adopted a plan like Cuba’s that separates tourists almost entirely from the general population.

Tourist buses to the resorts will be prohibited from making stops along the way, and police officers will be assigned to each bus to enforce the rule. Visitors will not be allowed to rent cars or take trips outside the fenced-in coastal resort areas.

A Christ statue stands without tourists milling about, amid a lockdown affecting tourism to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, June 18, 2020. For state-run tourism, Cuba’s success so far in controlling the coronavirus is becoming part of some companies’ marketing plans. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

There is no indication that tourists will immediately start to arrive. Canada, Cuba’s biggest source of visitors, remains closed to nonessential travel until further notice. European countries also have strict travel rules in place.

Like other Caribbean islands, Cuba is highly dependent on tourism. It earned an estimated $4.1 billion from 4.2 million tourist visits last year, around 10 percent of gross domestic product, although the island’s finances are highly opaque due to government secrecy and an unusual system of two currencies, neither of which holds value outside Cuba.

People venture outdoors wearing masks as a precaution amid the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, June 18, 2020. All of Cuba has moved to phase one with the exception of Havana, the capital of 2 million people where the small number of new daily cases has been concentrated. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

After years of almost zero growth, the shutdown of international flights in March pushed Cuba into its most severe shortages and economic stagnation in many years, with long lines forming for basic products. A report from the Economic Commission on Latin America predicted a 3% to 5% drop in GDP for Cuba this year after years of stagnant growth that rarely topped 1%.

Commerce, transportation and public spaces have been shut down almost completely for three months. The shutdown, combined with health monitoring and virus testing, has virtually eliminated COVID-19 in Cuba. With more than 2,000 tests performed daily, the number of new cases emerging each day has been fewer than 10, and often less than five, for several weeks.

A man walks on Boca Ciega beach where swimming is restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Havana, Cuba, Monday, June 22, 2020. With coronavirus cases down to a handful a day, Cuba is betting on a new form of tourism by designating five keys off its coast as all-inclusive vacation sites almost completely isolated from the rest of Cuba, in an attempt to restart a vital industry without reintroducing the virus to the country. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

The new tourism model is somewhat reminiscent of past practices. Under longtime leader Fidel Castro, Cubans were prohibited from entering tourist hotels as part of a broader pattern of isolating the communist society from outside influence.

Even before the coronavirus, some coastal resort keys were off limits to Cubans. The prohibition is now expanding to its greatest extent since Castro’s brother Raul took over and dropped many restrictions.

A pet dog watches a few cars go by from the roof of a building in the Cerro neighborhood, during a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, June 19, 2020. Nearly three months of a near-total shutdown of commerce, transportation, and public spaces, combined with health monitoring and virus testing has led to the virtual elimination of COVID-19 in Cuba. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Cuban hotel employees on the newly restricted keys will observe seven-day workweeks followed by seven days of isolation at home.

Varadero, a popular, resort-studded peninsula less than a two-hour drive from Havana, will be divided into a section for Cubans and a section for international tourists, who will not mix with the general population, officials have said.

The Malecon waterfront is devoid of people during a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, June 18, 2020. With coronavirus cases down to a handful a day, Cuba is betting on a new form of tourism by designating five keys off its coast as all-inclusive vacation sites almost completely isolated from the rest of Cuba, in an attempt to restart a vital industry without reintroducing the virus to the country. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

The new measures are part of the first phase of a three-phase plan to move Cuba back to normal life, with phase three looking much like Cuba did before the virus. Cuba detected its first infections in a group of Italian tourists in the city of Trinidad in March.

All of Cuba has moved to phase one with the exception of Havana, the capital of two million people where the new infections have been concentrated.

Pigeons take flight in an empty Plaza Vieja in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Nearly three months of a near-total shutdown of commerce, transportation, and public spaces, combined with health monitoring and virus testing has led to the virtual elimination of COVID-19 in Cuba. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Cuban tourism expert Jose Luis Perello said the July 1 date to begin the new system was “a sign of intent,” on the part of Cuban authorities to show that the island was open again, “but first you need to know who’s really ready to engage in tourism this year.”

U.S. rules prohibit American visitors from trips that would be strictly tourism, like those to coastal beach resorts.

The foreign hospitality companies that manage most of Cuba’s better hotels say they are hopeful that tourists will return to destinations like Havana in the latter stages of reopening. Cuba has said that more tourism will resume by phase three, albeit with near-universal mask wearing, social distancing and tests for arriving travelers.

Hotel Nacional stands tall near the empty intersection of 23rd Street and the Malecon seawall, amid a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, June 20, 2020. Like other Caribbean islands, Cuba is highly dependent on tourism. It also earns hard currency from the export of medical and other professional services, remittances, and subsidized petroleum from Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Cuba’s private hospitality sector remains closed to international business. For state-run tourism, the island’s success in controlling the virus is becoming part of some companies’ marketing plans.

“The island is coming out of the pandemic experience stronger, from a public-health standpoint,” said Juan Francisco Candeal, manager of the NH Capri Hotel. “I think that the message that’s been transmitted is of a secure destination.”

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