Travelers going to Cuba will be able to enter the country without showing proof of COVID-19 vaccinations or a negative PCR test, a sudden lifting of restrictions the government announced Wednesday that aims to boost tourism to the island.
The new rules come when the Caribbean island desperately needs cash. Cuba’s economy has hit record low levels of production of food and other goods. The pandemic and U.S. sanctions have also affected tourism and other significant sources of income, such as money sent to Cubans from abroad.
Cubans struggle to buy food as shortages continue, and soaring inflation has pushed up prices. Local media recently reported long lines to purchase gasoline and frequent electricity blackouts. Records from Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, reviewed by Reuters show that Nicolas Maduro’s government, a close Cuban ally, has cut oil shipments to Cuba from almost 44,000 barrels per day to 22,000 in the first quarter of this year.
Cuba’s tourism has been hit hard since the pandemic and has not recovered. In February, the country received 99,223 tourists, only 66% percent of the expected number, Minister of Economy Alejandro Gil said last week, blaming a new wave of the omicron variant around the world. He said Cuban authorities are still hoping to get at least 2.5 million visitors this year to help the island recover from the sharp losses in 2021, when only about 570,000 tourists went to the island.
Cuban officials have said little about the new COVID rules for international travelers. In a brief note, the Ministry of Public Health cited “the international and national epidemiological situation of COVID-19 and the levels of immunization achieved” to justify the change.
In recent days, Cuban authorities warned of a possible increase in cases, and numbers surpassed 800 new cases reported daily. On Monday and Tuesday, health authorities reported lower figures, 510 and 679 respectively.
After closing off airports for several months in the past two years and implementing other restrictions, lifting all COVID-related measures has already generated controversy in Cuba, especially because it contrasts with strict public mask mandates and vaccination requirements that remain in place.
“How is it possible that we Cubans are required to show our vaccination cards even to enter a theater?” asked a user who identified himself as Yosvani on the state news site Cubadebate.
Many Cubadebate readers, who wrote more than 260 comments about the announcement, were worried that lifting restrictions on foreign travelers would contribute to a new wave of cases this summer, as Europe is already wrestling with a spike of new infections linked to an omicron subvariant known as BA.2.
Readers also drew parallels with what happened last summer, when the delta variant ravaged Cuba and overwhelmed the health system. Basic medications like aspirin or acetaminophen are still missing from pharmacy shelves, some noted.
“This is a terrible decision,” another user, who identified herself as Beatriz, wrote. “We don’t have the resources to resist another outbreak.”
While COVID cases and deaths have dropped across the Americas, the region has reported more than 620,000 new cases a week in the past few weeks, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne said in a media briefing Wednesday. She warned that the region could face a new surge in cases soon.
“Time and time again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here just a few weeks later,” she said. “We cannot ignore the risk of further COVID-19 surges.”