14ymedio, Havana, February 3, 2020 — It’s lunch hour, and several restaurants in Havana’s Chinatown are packed with customers. They speak in anxious tones, consult their phones, make calls and constantly look at their watches. Most of them are Chinese who are now stranded in Cuba after numerous flights were canceled because of the corona virus that is hitting their country.
The outbreak in Wuhan has led many airlines to cancel their flights to China. With more than 300 deaths and some 17,000 cases confirmed with the illness, local authorities have taken drastic measures that also affect a great number of tourists on the Island.
Jiang is a young man of 28 who was supposed to return to his country through a combination of flights from Havana to Paris and then by Air France to Peking, but for now the trip is canceled and he has to remain in Cuba. “I’m running out of money, and if there is no solution by Monday, I’ll have to go to the embassy and ask for help. They’ve told me I can fly to Paris and wait there until the connection is reestablished, but I’d rather stay here,” Jiang says. “There is still an option with Aeroflot but I’m not in a hurry to get home because classes have been suspended since the New Year’s vacation .”
The young man rents in a private home in Old Havana where they offered him housing before this happened. “The owner told me I could stay some extra nights at half-price but all this is very inconvenient for me and my friends, because we came for three weeks of vacation and now we are trapped here.”
Business people in the zone aren’t very bothered by the situation. “With the decline in tourism, at least now this place is full,” says a waiter in one of the restaurants in Chinatown that is popular because of its traditional Chinese cooking.
“They come here not only to eat but also to meet and talk about what they’re going through,” he clarifies. “Although many came on tourist packages and the companies are taking care of them through this, others are not doing well with this whole situation.”
In 2018 Cuba was the seventh destination in Latin America for Chinese tourism, with more than 48,000 visitors, and in 2019 the Island went up to fourth place in the region, a growth that was also noted in tourism offers and commercials focused on Chinese travelers.
“They are very interested in the history, the architecture, the music, but also want the beach and sun,” a private guide specializing in Chinese tourism told 14ymedio. He studies at the Confucius Institute of Havana and alternates his classes with walks and activities designed for groups coming from China.
“Recently I’ve had to help a lot of people with their travel arrangements, but most still haven’t been able to leave the country because the flights to mainland China are canceled, and between going to Europe or the U.S. where they’ll waste much more time waiting, they prefer to stay here,” he said.
“The bad news is that it seems this might be extended for a lot longer. Those who now are considered tourists can soon be in a situation almost of humanitarian emergency, and then the authorities must have a plan to house and feed them,” he adds.
For now, the Chinese Embassy in Havana hasn’t activated a specific protocol for these cases, according to a source who works in the headquarters in Vedado, but “each case is analyzed personally, and Chinese citizens have every right to solicit help and support in this circumstance,” he adds. “They can come and speak with an official.”
There is nothing posted outside the Embassy that contains additional information for tourists who are stranded on the Island because of the corona virus.
From Europe, SAS, Swiss Air, Finnair, Lufthansa and Air France have canceled flights to China. As for KLM, flights are being canceled as the situation with the coronavirus deteriorates.
The airlines aren’t the only ones taking extreme precautions. Cuban authorities are equipped to protect the country’s borders, “to contain the arrival of sick travelers (…) in addition to assuring strict compliance with measures of supervision and control over them, originating from areas with transmission after they have arrived,” said the official press.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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