by Yosley Carrero
HAVANA, July 21 (Xinhua) -- Melany Carrasco, a 15-year-old girl, celebrated her birthday by holding a big party at a beach resort in Cuba, with her family and friends standing at least one-meter apart under new health rules.
"Keeping a distance of at least one meter from others is required to prevent getting infected with COVID-19, but it doesn't mean we can't have fun," Carrasco told Xinhua at the Sol Palmeras Hotel in Varadero, Cuba's renowned beach town, some 150 km east of the capital Havana.
Thousands of Cubans headed to beaches after hotels reopened under new health regulations in June, as the country started to ease restrictions aimed at containing the nationwide spread of COVID-19.
Carrasco, who lives with her parents in the western province of Matanzas, said she was able to celebrate her 15th birthday, an important one in Latin culture, thanks to Cuba's successful fight against the pandemic.
In Varadero, hotels reopened with 60-percent occupancy under strict health regulations, including social distancing measures, temperature checks and cleaning and disinfection measures in rooms, swimming pools and restaurants.
Yunier Farradaz, who works in the food and beverage department of Sol Palmeras hotel, said restaurants offer order service instead of buffets as the latter gather people around the same table and make them touch the same tableware, which may spread the virus.
"I wash my hands frequently and maintain a reasonable distance from customers. I have to work more now, but it is for a very good reason. The COVID-19 crisis is changing almost everything," Farradaz said.
Yamilet Rodriguez, a member of the medical team at Sol Palmeras, said the public health system has supported the tourism industry in Cuba during the pandemic. "In addition to checking the temperature of customers and employees, we try to detect COVID-19 symptoms such as fever and cough. We want people to feel protected during their stay."
In early July, Cuba partially reopened its borders to foreign tourists, months after the Caribbean nation announced the suspension of international flights and asked international boats to withdraw from its territorial waters as a precautionary measure to slow the spread of the coronavirus nationwide in late March.
Hotels in mainland Cuba now only reopen to locals while foreign visitors can enjoy their vacation in the southern and northern islands.
Francisco Camps, deputy director general of Melia Hotels International in Cuba, believes that keeping local and international tourists separate is a positive step taken by the government to protect both groups from COVID-19.
Calling Cuba as "one of the safest tourist destinations," Camps added. "What's more, measures adopted by Cuba in the context of the coronavirus outbreak give international tourists all possible guarantees, including mandatory PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests."
The new regulations also protect staff serving foreign visitors at resorts, by requiring them to rest for a week at home for medical observation after working for seven days.
Cuba has 241 beach attractions, ranking second only to the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean in the number of international tourists.
The flow of tourism depends on many factors, including tour operators, airlines and border controls in countries, said Jose Luis Perello, a university professor and tourism industry analyst.
Canada and Europe are Cuba's biggest tourism markets, while China and Russia are emerging markets, Perello said, noting that international tourists, except Canadians, are required to take long-haul flights to arrive in Cuba.
"After sheltering in place for more than six months due to the pandemic, many tourists need isolated beaches to remove their face masks and enjoy the sunset. Cuba can provide visitors with all these attractions," Perello added.
So far, Cuba has reported 2,449 confirmed cases and 87 deaths from the disease. Enditem