by Raimundo Urrechaga
HAVANA, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) -- Cuba is working hard to boost the Caribbean island nation's tourism industry, with a focus on attracting more Chinese investment and tourists.
Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said on Wednesday that this also comes as part of an effort to expand Cuba-China tourism cooperation.
He told Xinhua shortly after the inauguration of the 22nd edition of the Meetings and Incentives Travel Market (MITM) Americas business fair that one of the event's objectives is to get more Chinese people to learn more about Cuba.
"Chinese tourism is growing, although not at the speed we would like considering the full potential of that country, but we believe that little by little it has been increasing," said the minister.
According to official data, around 46,000 Chinese tourists visit Cuba every year, a number growing rapidly but still small compared to other markets such as Canada, the United States and Europe.
Despite a sharp fall in the number of foreign tourists so far this year, the Cuban tourism ministry plans to conclude the year 2018 with a record 4.8 million, compared to close to 4.7 million in the previous year, Marrero said.
Regarding Chinese visitors, he said, "We continue to bet on this very important market."
"We are trying to make progress in tourism negotiations with Chinese companies," he said.
The Cuban minister cited ongoing talks to bring the weekly Air China flight from Beijing to Havana at its full potential and combine it with other Cuban cities or destinations in the Caribbean.
The direct air service between Beijing and Havana with a stopover in Montreal, Canada was launched in 2015. It is the first direct flight ever between the Chinese capital and a Caribbean destination.
Marrero said Chinese companies are also making significant investments in Cuba's tourism sector, with over 700 million U.S. dollars in the construction of new, high-standard hotels and the development of other tourism projects.
Earlier this year, Jose Daniel Alonso, director of development and investment at Cuba's tourism ministry, told Xinhua that Cuba's commercial exchanges with Chinese companies are growing, and the Chinese products are of high quality.
He said the Cubanacan tourism group has been co-running the Kempinski Grand Shanghai Hotel in a partnership with China's Suntime Enterprise since 2010, and "This same Chinese company will build a luxury hotel at Havana's Marina Hemingway to the west of the Cuban capital and the first steps are being taken to start the project."
"It's a venture that exceeds 200 million (U.S.) dollars," he added.
At the same time, a Beijing-based Chinese company is working with another Cuban enterprise on a large real estate project to build a hotel and golf course east of Havana in an area called Bellomonte.
"This project represents an investment that exceeds 500 million U.S. dollars," Alonso said, adding that it will greatly boost the Cuban tourism sector.
The Cuban tourism ministry official also believes that increased bilateral cooperation in the tourism sector will contribute to the economic and commercial links between Cuban and China, two countries that have a traditional friendship.
He also cited the car rental business as a marker of strengthened ties.
In Cuba's car rental companies to serve foreign visitors, some 65 percent of the fleet currently are Chinese-made cars including the brands GAC Motor, Geely, MG, BYD, BAIC and Maxus, while the buses are almost completely Chinese-made, by companies like Yutong and King Long.
"Every day we want to insert more Chinese products and technologies in the tourism sector, and currently in addition to buses and vehicles for rent we have also bought air conditioners for rooms in many hotels. We are also assessing other goods for the Cuban hotel industry," Alonso said.