by Yosley Carrero
HAVANA, March 17 (Xinhua) -- Cuba's top tourist destination Havana, where music once reverberated on streets, taxi drivers were busy picking up passengers at airport, and foreigners bustled in souvenir shops, has seen sharp fall in tourist arrivals due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Dayron Paz, a 38-year-old taxi driver, used to drive tourists for Havana's scenery down a coastal boulevard with his pink vintage car.
But things have gone south for Paz as the capital city, which accounts for nearly half of Cuba's new cases since February, struggled to contain the spread of the virus.
"It has been more than a year since my last tour with foreign visitors. It has been a very hard period, indeed," he told Xinhua.
Paz, who was effectively laid off from his job at the Nostalgic Car, a private company, relocated to the central town of Camajuani, some 300 km east of Havana. He now works in the agriculture sector.
"This is not what I would have expected to be doing by this time, but the pandemic has disrupted the normal course of life," Paz said.
Official figures showed that more than 60 percent of pre-pandemic international tourists destined for Cuba visited Havana, home to 2 million inhabitants.
Silvia Canals runs La Casona del Son, a private salsa school in the city-center of Havana, gathering some 20 tutors. She wonders if tourism will ever go back to normal.
"We used to teach salsa, kizomba, and Caribbean rhythms to tourists, but with no foreigners coming in, there is no business," she said. "Cuban nationals do not pay for salsa classes."
Only about 1.1 million tourists visited Cuba last year, and most of them were before mid-March, when the country detected its first three cases in the city of Trinidad and closed borders.
This followed by reopening of borders in early July for tourists destined for the northern and southern regions.
It was not until early September that a plane carrying 104 international passengers from Canada arrived at Cuba's Jardines del Rey archipelago.
Rafael Lopez, director of Muthu Hotels, said that Cuba has adopted precautionary measures at hotel facilities to reduce the risk of contagion with the virus.
"Our clients feel safe here in Jardines del Rey. Cuba has beautiful beaches for tourists to rest," said Lopez, who has been working on the islets for five years.
Varadero, one of the top-rated beaches worldwide, looked desolate, as there were few visitors.
Cuban Minister of Economy and Planning Alejandro Gil said that receiving more tourists "entails a favorable impact on the country's economy."
The tourism industry accounts for more than 10 percent of Cuba's hard currency earnings. The island nation has received more than 4 million tourists annually since 2016.
Yet for almost a year, he told Xinhua, "there is practically no tourism."
Jose Luis Perello, a university professor and tourism expert, told Xinhua that Cuba received some 35,600 foreign visitors in the first two months of this year, down by 95.5 percent compared to the same period in 2020.
"Between January and February last year, 792,507 international travelers visited the island," he said, noting that a quicker comeback of the travel industry depends on global epidemic situation, travelers' budget and recovery of the aviation sector.
Cuba prioritizes sun and beach tourism because urban destinations need more time to put trickier quarantine measures in place for dense gatherings, according to Perello.
So far, Cuba has registered 62,998 COVID-19 cases with 376 deaths. Enditem