A sea of Chinese tourists is about to flood Cuba

The lure of beaches, luxury resorts, and golf courses may bring Chinese visitors to its longtime socialist ally, Cuba. In September, a Chinese airline will begin offering direct flights between China and Cuba, a precursor to what officials hope will be a “sea of Chinese tourists” descending on the Caribbean island nation.

Cuba has already been working hard to attract some of the 100 million Chinese tourists who take overseas trips each year. Grupo Gaviota, the commercial arm of the Cuban military, started a campaign to ready 55 hotels and expand the country’s largest marina, the Gaviota Varadero Marina, to attract the Chinese. Cuban tourism authorities say they plan to have at least 85,000 hotel rooms available for tourists by 2020.

Grupo Gaviota’s jazzy promotional video, subtitled in Chinese, shows mainlanders lounging in five-star hotels, sailing on yachts, and enjoying Chinese food.

Cuba has long been an export destination for low-cost Chinese goods, but getting tourists there has been a harder sell. Top tourist destinations for the Chinese are usually in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere in Asia. Last year, only 28,000 mainland tourists visited Cuba.

But as Cuba’s tourism sector opens up, more Chinese companies and travel operators are turning their attention to the island nation. In May, a Chinese company, Beijing Enterprise, said it planned to build a golf course there, as well as condominiums. That would bring Cuba’s total number of 18-hole golf courses up to two.

Already, over 13 resort projects worth over $460 million in Chinese investment are underway, the official news agency Xinhua said this week.

If thousands of free-spending Chinese tourists begin to show up, the country’s burgeoning tourism sector could get a sizable boost. Travel and tourism is expected to contribute CUP12,709 million or 11.2% of GDP by 2024. China, Cuba’s largest creditor, also has the potential to help Cuba implement market-oriented economic reforms after its own path.

But there may be more at stake here than just golf courses and tourist dollars. For China, closer ties with Cuba could help its trading position in the US-dominated region. For Cuba, China may be a way hedge against that US dominance as US-Cuban relations thaw. Last year, officials from China and several Latin American countries met in Havana to set up the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an alternative to the Organization of American States, led by Washington.

And of course, there’s the shared Communist history. “For the Chinese, Cuba is a country of heroes, like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara,” said Elena Wang (link in Spanish), director of China Sea International Travel Service, a travel agency that operates tours to Cuba. “For the Chinese, going to Cuba isn’t just traditional tourism, they are going to learn about the history of Cuba and her revolution.”

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