Stephanie Nolen — The Globe and Mail
HAVANA – The cobbled streets of Old Havana are choked with tourists these days: sweaty, sunburned tourists from the United States, most of them, who make the rounds of the small hotels in the morning to beg and plead. But it does little good: There isn’t a room – or, often, a café table or a taxi – to be had. The tourists just keep coming – arrivals are up 62 per cent this year. But the city’s limited tourist infrastructure is bursting at the seams.
“It’s a big problem,” said Omar Everleny, an economist at the Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy in the capital. “Havana is 100 per cent full.” The U.S. visitors have seized on new freedom to visit since the United States and Cuba normalized relations a year ago this week, but they are still mostly restricted to Havana. Yet beyond the capital, in the beach resort mecca of Varadero or the keys to the north, occupancy is also near-full, and there is a huge unmet market for beachfront rooms, sailboat slips and villas. A much-heralded process of economic reform is under way in Cuba, and foreign investment laws were made significantly more favourable for investors earlier this year – and yet the level of building pales in comparison to the size of the demand, in tourism and other sectors.
That’s due in part to the U.S. embargo, which remains firmly in place despite a year of détente. The ongoing tight control of all major economic activity by the state, and the still-strangling bureaucracy, means everything happens slowly.
But many people here – both Cubans and the handful of foreigners based in the country on behalf of international firms – express surprise that Canadian companies, in particular, aren’t a bigger presence, taking advantage of the lull before the looming U.S. storm, to build on their historical edge.
“Canadian companies could and should take advantage of the fact that they can be here already and know Cuban institutions,” said Raul Rodriguez, a researcher with the Centre for Hemispheric and United States Studies at the University of Havana. “Why aren’t there more Canadian infrastructure companies, more interests, given that there are more than one million Canadian tourists?”
“There should be a Tim Hortons in Varadero,” he added.
Feature Continues Here: Canadian Businesses Avoid Cuba