Cuba’s visa-free policy for Chinese nationals leads to rocketing tourism searches

global times​​​

    As a result of the Cuban government's Saturday announcement of a visa-free policy starting this month for Chinese citizens holding ordinary passports, searches for related tourism products on Chinese travel platforms surged 40 percent, and direct flights between China and Cuba are set to resume soon.

    The announcement was made by Cuban Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia during the 42nd Cuban International Tourism Fair (FITCuba 2024), which was held at the seaside resort of Cayo Coco in Cuba's province of Ciego de Avila.

    Garcia also said that China will be the guest of honor of the Cuban Tourism Festival 2025 and that direct flights between China and Cuba will resume on May 17.

    Half an hour after the visa-free policy was announced, searches for keywords such as Cuban hotels and flights increased by more than 40 percent on travel platform Ctrip compared with the previous day, the leading domestic online travel agency told the Global Times on Sunday. Residents from Beijing, Shanghai, and provinces including Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian showed a very high level of enthusiasm regarding information about Cuba, according to Ctrip.

    Currently, there are no direct flights between China and Cuba, but Air China has scheduled to resume the Beijing-Havana direct flight, the only direct route between China and Cuba, on May 17.

    According to data from Chinese travel platform Qunar, the current price for a one-way Beijing-Havana ticket is around 8,200 yuan ($1,132), with two flights per week, while the return trip costs about 5,700 yuan.

    At a business forum held in Beijing in November 2023, Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz called to establish direct flights between Beijing and Havana as soon as possible to facilitate trade and business. He said that both sides had agreed to push forward bilateral cooperation deals in a comprehensive way.

    The resumption of the flight between China and Cuba is of great significance in promoting South-South cooperation and advancing cooperation between China and Cuba, Song Wei, a professor with the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times on Sunday. She noted that since Cuba is facing greater fragility due to its size and its status as a developing island country, enhancing connectivity and strengthening its integration into global value chains are particularly crucial for its development.

    The resumption of the flight route will facilitate stronger connections between Cuba and the outside world, enhance its trade relations, and contribute to consolidating its development basis, Song said. It also helps mitigate the impact of the decades-long US embargo and enhances its economic ties with the rest of the world as an opposition against hegemony and unilateral sanctions.

    Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decades-long US embargo, geopolitical uncertainties and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Cuba's situation is complex, and it has been facing many difficulties. Marrero said during his visit to China in November that the primary task for the Cuban government is to set economic and development goals, and the tourism sector will be a major source of growth. Marrero expressed his anticipation for the resumption of direct flights in 2024. He also said he hoped to see a record-breaking number of Chinese tourists visiting Cuba after the resuming flights.

    As of April 26, Cuba has received more than 1 million international tourists in 2024, according to data from the Cuban Ministry of Tourism. The Cuban government expects to receive 3.5 million international tourists by the end of the year.

    Due to factors such as distance and cost, Cuba is not a traditionally popular outbound destination for Chinese tourists. However, Cuba, as well as countries like Mexico and Brazil in Latin America, boasts unique cultural and natural landscapes, which are highly attractive to Chinese tourists, Qin Jing, general manager of Public Affairs at Ctrip Group, told the Global Times on Sunday.

    According to Song, for countries like Cuba, which are developing small island countries in the Caribbean, the tourism industry is a crucial economic pillar. Strengthening flight connections between China and Cuba can allow Chinese consumers to reach Cuba more conveniently, thereby greatly promoting its economic development.

    The visa-free policy for China starting in May can better assist Chinese travelers in expanding consumption in Cuba, thus boosting the Cuban economy, Pan Deng, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Region Law Center of the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times on Sunday.

    Pan said that China aims to help Cuba in the services industry and trading activities through civilian initiatives, and the positive impact of visa-free entry lies in facilitating easier economic and trade cooperation in the tourism and services industries with Cuba.

    Moreover, the upcoming flight from China to Cuba is truly visa-free, as a transit visa is not required on this route, Pan said.

    Apart from the Beijing-Madrid-Havana route, Air China also resumed its Beijing-Madrid-Sao Paulo route on April 28. This route, known as the longest in the world, covers approximately 17,500 kilometers in total, with a total travel time of 23 hours and 20 minutes including the stopover. Meanwhile, China Southern Airlines recently launched a new route from Shenzhen direct to Mexico City. Covering a total length of 14,147 kilometers and with a flight time of approximately 16 hours, it is one of the longest routes in the world.

    According to Song, the resumption and launch of air routes between China, Cuba, and other Latin American countries also reflect the strengthening of ties between China and Latin America.

    Traditionally, Latin America has always been considered the "backyard" of the US, which sees the region as being within its own sphere of influence, leading to economic difficulties in the development of Latin American economies, Song said.

    How to free themselves from the economic hegemony of the US and seek more development partnerships for their own economic development, and thereby solidifying their independent political and economic development, are particularly important for Latin America countries, which is also the reason why Latin America attaches great importance to developing relations with China, Song remarked.

    Since the beginning of 2024, several countries have implemented visa-free entry policies for Chinese travelers, which have significantly boosted outbound tourists from China. During this year's May Day holidays, the numbers of flight bookings to visa-free destinations exceeded those in 2019.

    According to Qin, with this visa exemption policy and the immediate opening and resumption of direct flights from China to destinations in Latin America such as Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba, the time and cost for Chinese tourists to travel to these destinations are expected to be significantly reduced. It is anticipated that more Chinese tourists will embark on trips to Latin America.

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