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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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Statistics Canada reports merchandise trade deficit $160 million in December

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Ottawa – Statistics Canada says the country posted a merchandise trade deficit of $160 million in December as both exports and imports fell compared with November.

The result followed a revised deficit of $219 million for November compared with an initial reading for the month that showed a $41 million deficit.

Statistics Canada says exports in December fell 1.2 per cent in the month to $63.0 billion. Energy exports fell 7.6 per cent to $14.3 billion, while exports of farm, fishing and intermediate food products dropped 9.9 per cent to $5.3 billion.

Meanwhile, imports dropped 1.3 per cent in December to $63.1 billion as imports of consumer goods fell 6.4 per cent to $12.1 billion and motor vehicles and parts dropped 6.0 per cent to $9.9 billion.

In volume terms, total exports in December rose 0.9 per cent, while import volumes fell 1.9 per cent.

For the whole of 2022, Statistics Canada says the country posted a merchandise trade surplus of $20.1 billion, up from a surplus of $4.6 billion in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

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Automotive

German court rejects climate lawsuit against automaker BMW

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BERLIN (AP) — A German court on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit by environmental campaigners seeking to force automaker BMW to stop selling vehicles with combustion engine by 2030.

The group Environmental Action Germany, also known by its German acronym DUH, argued that manufacturers such as BMW pose a threat to people’s right to property, health and life if they continue making vehicles that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Munich regional court ruled Tuesday that while the plaintiffs’ arguments couldn’t be dismissed from the outset, “at present there is no threat of illegal encroachment” of their rights.

Judges noted that German and European lawmakers, spurred partly by a 2021 ruling by Germany’s top court, have taken numerous measures to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord. As such there was no absence of laws that would warrant civil action against BMW “at last not at this time,” they said.

The Munich-based automaker welcomed the ruling, saying efforts to cut emissions should be determined by democratically elected parliaments, not in the courts.

DUH said it was satisfied the court had recognized the permissibility of their lawsuit in principle. It plans to appeal the ruling.

The group said vehicles sold by BMW in 2021 were responsible for more emissions of planet-heating carbon dioxide than countries such as Finland or Portugal produce in a year.

A similar lawsuit against Mercedes-Benz was rejected by a German court last year and the appeal is pending.

A third lawsuit, against energy company Wintershall Dea, is scheduled to be heard in August.

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