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Cuba’s famed Varadero beach getting ready for tourists again

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VARADERO, Cuba (AP) — Little by little, vacationers are returning to one of the Caribbean’s most iconic beaches, which has been a nearly abandoned strip of glittering sand and turquoise seas for more than a year.

Varadero, the surfside star of Cuba’s crucial tourism industry, is slowly getting ready for Cuba’s planned Nov. 15 formal reopening to global visitors.

A handful of tourists, largely from Russia or Canada, have strolled across the 22-kilometer (13-mile) swath of sand in recent days, hunting out the scattering of restaurants that have reopened, dawdling over handicrafts at the few stands that have reappeared.

Medical personnel scan hotel visitors for signs of fever. Waiters, desk clerks and sellers of trinkets wear doubled masks as they cater to unmasked visitors in bathing suits. Largely empty tour buses run down the main boulevard.

At least some of the 60 or so hotels in Varadero remain closed, or pressed into service as quarantine centers. But others are already running.

About 100 people were staying at the 386-room Iberostar Selection Varadero on one day last week.

Juan Carlos Pujol, Cuba operations manager for the Spanish hotel chain, said the company had taken advantage of the pandemic closure to update restaurants or make adjustments for health measures, such as moving tables further apart or extending the reach of wi-fi to broader open expanses.

“We are very content and hopeful because now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and we want to resume operations how and begin to recover what we had always had,” he said.

The pandemic was a terrible blow to tourism in Cuba, which depends heavily on the industry, especially after a series of ever-tighter embargo measures imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump — and that have not been significantly relaxed under his successor, Joe Biden.

“I’ve had many months without work, feeling horrible,” said Lizet Aguilera, a 55-year-old weaver who recently reopened a souvenir stand that had been closed for 16 months.

Even so, she said she worries that she could be infected with COVID-19 while at work and bring it home.

“When I reach my house, before greeting anybody I take a bath,” she said.

Another vender, Richard Martin, estimated that only about 50 of the resort’s 5,000 artisans so far have returned to sell after months of hardship.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “The need, the fear, the scarcity. We have confidence in the vaccine. What remains is to open, to show that it functions.”

Cuba says it plans to have vaccinated 90% of its eligible population by the end of November— taking advantage of its unusually advanced biomedical industry to create the only locally developed COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America.

That has allowed officials to plan a gradual reopening to visitors, particularly in Varadero, some 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Havana.

The town itself has only about 6,000 residents, but it provides thousands of jobs for people in nearby Cardenas, Boca de Camarioca and Matanzas and has some 20,000 hotel rooms — as well as a number of private residences that host visitors.

In 2019, Varadero received about 1.5 million of the 4.3 million tourists who came to Cuba— a number that collapsed when the pandemic hit and Cuba largely closed itself off to visitors.

The reopening will pose challenges: Cuba’s weak economy and U.S. sanctions complicate obtaining products to sell to tourists. A new monetary policy means many services must be paid for using foreign bank cards — though none that depend on U.S. banking institutions.

Andrea Rodríguez, The Associated Press

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CP NewsAlert: CFL, CFL Players' Association reach tentative collective agreement

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TORONTO — The second strike in CFL history is over.

Two sources told The Canadian Press that the CFL and CFL Players’ Association reached a tentative seven-year collective bargaining agreement Wednesday night.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity as neither side immediately offered confirmation.

The contract must still be ratified by both the CFL board of governors as well as the CFLPA membership but the expectation is players will report to their teams Thursday and go through an opening-day walkthrough.

More coming.

The Canadian Press

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Alberta premier Jason Kenney steps down as UCP leader

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has stepped down as leader of the United Conservative Party after narrowly winning the party’s leadership vote.

Kenney received 51.4 per cent support in voting results released tonight in Calgary.

He told supporters that the number is not what he hoped for and is not enough for him to continue on as leader.

If Kenney had received less than 50 per cent plus one, he would have had to quit as per party rules and a leadership contest would have been called.

Normally, leaders consider 75 to 80 per cent — or higher — the minimum credible mandate to continue leading their party.

Kenney had earlier said he would accept a slim majority, because the voting pool was skewed by last-minute members interested only in scuttling his big-tent conservative party.

“While 51 per cent of the vote passes the constitutional threshold of a majority, it clearly is not adequate support to continue on as leader,” Kenney said.

“I’ve informed the president of the party of my intention to step down as leader of the United Conservative Party,” he said to gasps in the audience.

“We need to move forward united. We need to put the past behind us. And a large number of our members have asked for an opportunity to clear the air through a leadership election.”

The leadership review took on heightened importance over the past year as Kenney was buffeted by poor polling numbers, sluggish fundraising and open dissent from some in his party and caucus.

It was also punctuated by controversy. It had already been delayed by a year when it was set for an in-person ballot on April 9 in Red Deer, Alta.

When 15,000 members signed up — five times more than expected — the party said it couldn’t handle the logistics and moved to a mail-in ballot open to all 59,000 members.

Critics said the change was made to give Kenney the edge as it appeared he was going to lose the in-person vote.

Elections Alberta is also investigating allegations of illegal bulk buying of memberships in the review. And the party remains under investigation by the RCMP over allegations of criminal identity fraud in the 2017 contest that saw Kenney elected leader.

Kenney had made it clear that the vote and open dissent had become a “soap opera” distracting the party facing a provincial election next May.

He also said that if he got the required support, he would expect dissenters in his caucus to rally behind him or face unnamed consequences.

Two backbenchers who openly criticized Kenney last year — Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes — were voted out of caucus and sit as Independents.

Backbenchers Jason Stephan, Peter Guthrie and Brian Jean — who helped Kenney found the UCP — have been the most vocal. They openly urged the premier to resign for the good of the party.

Kenney has tried to downplay the dissent by tying it directly to unhappiness over COVID-19 restrictions his government bought in to try to stop the spread of the virus.

Opponents in caucus say the dissatisfaction is also over Kenney’s policies and management style, which they deem to be top-down, dismissive and undemocratic. They say Kenney has not done enough to gain a better deal for Alberta with the federal government on shared programs.

Conservative leaders in Alberta have not fared well after middling votes in leadership reviews.

Former Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein left after getting 55 per cent of the vote in 2006. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford received 77 per cent in their reviews, but stepped down from the top job when the party pushed back.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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