Expert notes: Beijing—Havana route is “China’s strongest economic support to Cuba”

By Daily Pérez Guillén

The launch of the Beijing-Madrid-Havana route from May 17 contributes to strengthening Cuba’s commercial ties and represents “China’s strongest economic support to Cuba,” Song Wei, professor with the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Asian media outlet Global Times.

The professor also stressed that the announcement of the implementation of visa-free entry for Chinese citizens with ordinary passports to Cuba, “is of great significance in promoting South-South cooperation and advancing cooperation between China and Cuba.” She added that as a “small island” country where “the tourism industry is a crucial economic pillar. Strengthening flight connections between China and Cuba can allow Chinese consumers to reach Cuba more conveniently, thereby greatly promoting its economic development.”

Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador to Cuba, Ma Hui, wrote on his X profile that, “The new direct flight between Beijing and Havana will bring the two peoples closer,” and “facilitate travel between Havana and Madrid and onwards to other directions.”

Press reports indicate that barely half an hour after the news of the visa exemption to visit Cuba was announced, during the closing of the FITCUBA International Tourism Fair, the number of Chinese Internet users searching for keywords such as hotels and flights to Cuba on online travel platforms increased by more than 40% compared to the previous day.

Media outlets also noted that the “preferential policy,” was of great significance in “many ways.” Firstly, as further improving relations between China and Cuba, inasmuch as the visa is a symbol of sovereignty and a “barometer” of bilateral relations.

Between 2010 and 2019, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Cuba increased by about 23% per year, to place the Asian market among the top 15 issuers to the Caribbean destination. The COVID-19 pandemic halted that trend and in 2023, only 18,003 Chinese tourists crossed Cuban borders.

However, the interest in developing ties was maintained. In March 2023, representatives of Havanatur International Group and the Chinese tour operator Tumei International Travel signed a memorandum of understanding to promote the arrival of tourists to the largest Caribbean island to enjoy a reliable and safe destination, according to the Chinese side.

After the signing at the Hotel Meliá Cohíba, Rodrigo Wen, deputy general manager of the operator specializing in tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean, noted that Cuba is a priority destination on its agenda and features among customer preferences.

During his most recent visit to China last November, Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz presented the Caribbean destination’s tourist attractions and stressed that the number of Chinese tourists visiting Cuba was expected to reach a new peak in 2024.

As part of the strategy to foster the development of the Chinese market, in March 2021 the Cuban Ministry of Tourism and the China Tourism Academy signed a memorandum of understanding on tourism cooperation covering academic programs, research and training.

Some months ago, in an exchange with the Xinhua news agency, Cuban expert José Luis Perelló estimated that Chinese tourism could represent one of the main markets to achieve a recovery of the sector in Cuba.

China is one of the largest tourist markets in the world and many countries are developing personalized strategies to attract travelers from the Asian nation, he noted.

In the expert’s opinion, one of Cuba’s fundamental challenges is to “fully” join all the Caribbean’s tourism activities and “talk a little more” about multi-destination integration. This topic was addressed by Cuban Minister of Tourism, Juan Carlos García Granda, during the closing press conference of FITCUBA 2024.

“We are all convinced that multi-destination travel is beneficial for the region, but we need connectivity, which today is everything. If we can solve connectivity, there will be growth for the whole region. I believe that when attracting long-distance tourists we also have to think about giving them more than one option. For example, Mexico-Cuba, during a 10-14 day stay, is a possibility that can translate into an increase in clients,” the minister explained.

Meanwhile, Perelló believes that Cuba could become an important platform in the Caribbean region for Chinese visitors to practice multi-destination tourism and connect with other areas of tourist interest.

“We have strengths that have been studied by Chinese tour operators. Cuba is a consolidated sun and beach destination, with many patrimonial, natural, historical and cultural potentialities,” the expert told Xinhua.

The Asia-Pacific region includes more than four billion people, which represents approximately 60% of the world’s population, and has the most populated countries in the world, such as India and China. In particular, the Asian giant is experiencing one of the fastest and highest increases in the number of middle and upper class citizens in recent decades.

In the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese outbound tourism market ranked first globally, both in terms of the number of tourists and in terms of spending on international travel.

Although in absolute numbers, the trips of this outbound market to Latin American and Caribbean countries are still far from those to destinations in Asia or Europe, in recent years there has been a growth trend.

Cuban travel authorities have publicly referred to the relevance of these “emerging” markets in the development strategies of the leisure industry in the archipelago. Recent announcements follow in that direction.