Canadians in search of sun, sand and low-cost vacations are increasingly discovering Cuba.
Just 25 years ago, Fidel Castro's diverse land of sandy beaches, coral cays and secluded bays attracted fewer than 2,000 annual visitors from Canada. That number soared to about 156,000 last year, a 10 percent increase over 1995, according to the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto. For the winter months this year, 1.8-million Canadians had been expected to travel to Florida.
In all, about 1-million people traveled to Cuba in 1996, with most of them coming from Italy, Canada, Spain, Germany and France.
In setting a goal to attract 200,000 Canadians by 2000, Cuba is working to improve the vacation experience, said Gabriel Alvarez, the tourist board director.
Thousands of additional hotel rooms are being built, while training for workers in the hospitality industry _ the island's second-largest business after sugar _ is being upgraded.
"Cuba is renowned for its hospitable people and breathtaking beauty _ and they especially love Canadians," said Marilotte Bloemen, public relations manager for Toronto-based Delta Hotels and Resorts.
The 11-million people, a mix of Spanish and African descendants, are well-educated and eager to show tourists their fascinating land of contrasts, she said.
Cuba has grown from a few hotels in Havana and Varadero in 1972 to 200 properties situated primarily in eight developing areas throughout the island and on some islets of the Cuban archipelago, Alvarez said.
Golf courses, ecotourism and cruises around Cuba are popular.
Canada has been increasing its humanitarian relief efforts to Cubans while Canadian businesses continue to expand on the island, despite threats of retaliation under the U.S. Helms-Burton law, aimed at enforcing an economic embargo.
In response to the law, humanitarian, church and student groups have called for a boycott of Florida by Canadian vacationers, while shunning messages on billboards placed in Canada by a Florida-based group urging tourists to avoid the Communist-ruled island.
The Delta chain, which also has a property in Orlando, is helping to make Canadians feel more at home in Cuba.
It was the first North American hotel company invited to do business in Cuba, and since 1994 it has managed club resorts, the historic Old Man and the Sea hotel in Havana, and four eco-adventure mountain lodges. The management is in association with Cubanacan, the government-owned tourist enterprise.
Delta is "narrowing its long-term focus," Bloemen said, to all-inclusive four-star Caribbean beach resorts in Holguin province _ Delta Las Brisas Club Resort and Delta Don Lino Club Resort _ on the northeast coast with uncrowded, white sandy beaches.
Las Brisas, with 230 rooms and a large free-form swimming pool with swim-up bar, is on the white sands of Guardalavaca Beach, 35 miles from Holguin.
Activities include sailing, snorkeling, wind surfing, catamarans, kayaks, scuba diving, horseback riding, eco-adventure tours, nightly dinner shows and a disco.
Don Lino, called the "first cultural hotel in Cuba," is an adult-only beachfront resort with 36 rooms nestled in a tranquil protected bay about 30 minutes from Holguin's airport. Water sports, cultural activities and excursions including Holguin and Santiago city tours, Campifia village tour and a sea safari cruise are offered. Both properties have resident cigar-makers.
The affordibility of Cuban vacations is another factor that attracts Canadians, Bloemen said. Trips including air fare and a week at an all-inclusive resort range from $600 to $1,200 Canadian ($435 to $870 U.S.) per person, "which is very reasonable."
Vacationers enjoy the all-inclusive packages, which at the Delta Cuban resorts include all meals and unlimited cocktails, beer, house wine and soft drinks. Delta also controls its room inventory and guarantees against overbooking, which has become a problem on the island.
Other Canadian interests are at work in Cuba, including two resort properties managed by Commonwealth Hospitality Ltd. of Mississauga, Ontario, which operates some Holiday Inns in Canada.
Dive Adventures of Toronto offers scuba diving packages off the southeast coast to explore underwater natural wonders and shipwrecks.
MacQueen's Island Tours, based in Prince Edward Island, arranges bicycle tours in Santiago de Cuba and the Manzanillo area in conjunction with Canadian Holidays. The company also has been collecting used bikes in Canada to ship to Cuba to help islanders run their own repair and rental business.