14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, June 28, 2021 — “Every day it’s a fight to get them to put on a mask but they refuse. The say they’re vaccinated,” says a hotel bartender in Varadero, who is worried by the behavior of Russian guests there. They are among the few tourists Cuba has seen since the decision was made to cautiously reopen the resort town. “I’m afraid to go home because all day I’m around people who are ignoring the security measures.”
There has been a steady stream of Russian visitors to Varadero since direct flights from Moscow began in April. At the time, the Cuban tourism conglomerate Gaviota wanted to promote the reopening with a simple message: “After many months, we can come together again, thanks to hygienic and public health protocols.”
But in practice, visitors are largely ignoring the guidelines.”You have to practically fight with them to get them to wear a mask. Even if we insist, they still don’t put it on. They get upset even when we just say something to them,” adds the bartender, who prefers to remain anonymous. “The ones who don’t get react badly, tell you that they’ve already been vaccinated. But the vaccine doesn’t prevent us from getting infected.”
According to official statistics released in early June, fewer than fifteen million Russians — a little more than 10% of the population — has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Another three million have received one dose.
Russia was the first country to approve a Covid vaccine: Sputnik V. It was approved in August before phase 3 trials had been conducted, along with other government approved vaccines: EpiVacCorona (October 2020), CoviVac (February 2021) and Sputnik Light (last month).
International experts view these pharmaceuticals with caution. Though Moscow claims Sputnik has a 97.6% efficacy rate, this has not been confirmed through independent clinical trials. Simultaneously, none of the vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency or the World Health Organization.
The employee claims that a significant number of hotel workers have not received the full dose of Cuba’s own trial vaccines. “The risk of getting sick is high. And we can’t even say that the fear is offset by economic benefits because Russian tourists are here on ’all inclusive’ packages and they almost never leave tips.
Even the cleaning staff, who do not interact directly with the guests, are frightened. “I see them in the halls not wearing masks, singing and talking loudly. I hold my breath when I pass them but that’s not really protecting me,” complains a maid from Cayo Coco, in Ciego de Avila province, another popular tourist destination.
However, it is in Varadero where the situation is most problematic. The city is located in Matanzas, the province where the public health emergency is suddenly the most acute. With more than 500 new Covid-19 cases reported on Monday, the region has become the focus of health officials’ concerns.
The Minister of Public Health, Jose Angel Portal Miranda, made an emergency visit to the province and met with local officials on Sunday “to analyze the complex epidemiological situation” in the region to evaluate “heightening measures to confront the pandemic” according to Twitter messages posted by health authorities.
But while the posts acknowledge an increase in infections, no reference is made to a possible link between the rising infection rate and the influx of tourists in Varadero, much less to role Russian visitors might be playing in this surge.
“Close the airport and stop letting tourists in,” writes Paulina Roques, a resident of nearby Cardenas. In a social media post last weekend, she complains, “Economic interests are taking precedence over the health risks that come with this reopening.” In a comment, another writer asks, “Will it be worth it, or will we ultimately spend more curing the sick than we earn off these tourists?”
Since June, more than 4,000 Russian visitors have been arriving daily in Varadero after the Russian carrier Aeroflot began direct flights from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport in Matanzas.
Aeroflot uses Boeing’s 777-300ER planes, which carry more than 500 passengers, for its three weekly flights. It partners with Azur Air, NordWind and Royal Flight, which began connections between Russia and its main Cuban tourist destination.
British and German tourists had been coming to Varadero in previous months but virulent waves of coronavirus in both countries led authorities to restrict or prohibit travel overseas. Russia is now Cuba’s greatest hope. Russian and Chinese tourism is the only market that is growing. Canada still accounts for the largest number of visitors but the European market is declining.
From January 2019 to January 2020, the Russian market grew 48.4%. Experts believe Cuba is poised to become a top tourist destination for Russian vacationers because it is cheaper than the Maldives, its main competitor, and the UAE.
“That’s excellent news. We believe tourism to Cuba could grow 250% based on the number of seats available on planes flying there. There’s a lot of interest from airlines,” said Juan Carlos Escalona Pellicer, the tourism adviser at the Cuban Embassy in Moscow.
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