Cuba tourism slides in wake of Hurricane Irma

The US imposed tighter travel restrictions to Cuba in November, after issuing a travel warning earlier due to a spate of alleged health attacks on diplomats in Havana. (Reuters)
Updated 30 January 2018
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Cuba tourism slides in wake of Hurricane Irma

HAVANA: Tourism to Cuba, one of the few bright spots in its ailing economy, has slid in the wake of Hurricane Irma and the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island, a Cuban tourism official said on Monday.
Although the number of visitors rose nearly 20 percent in 2017, it fell 10 percent on the year in December, and is down 7-8 percent this month, Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of Cuban state travel agency conglomerate Viajes Cuba, said.
Arrivals from the US, which had surged in the wake of the US-Cuban detente in 2014, took the worst hit, dropping 30 percent last December, he told Reuters.
“Since Hurricane Irma, we’ve seen arrivals shrink,” Bisbe York said on the sidelines of the event organized by US travel agency insightCuba to dispel tourist misperceptions about Cuba.
Irma hit in September, just as the tourism sector was taking reservations for its high season from November to March.
Images of destruction put many would-be visitors off although Cuba had fixed its tourism installations within two months, said Bisbe York. Arrivals of Canadians, the largest group of tourists to Cuba, were down 4-5 percent.
“But we see this as a temporary thing and what we are seeing is that arrivals are recovering from month to month,” said Bisbe York, adding that Cuba would go ahead with its plans to launch more than 15 hotels island-wide this year.
“The first trimester will be the most difficult, because logically the change in the public perception takes time.”
Occupancy rates at the hotels in Cuba managed by Spain’s Meliá Hotels International S.A. were down around 20 percent on the year in December and January, said Francisco Camps, Melia’s Cuba deputy general manager.
“From February though, we are already reaching figures similar to those we had in previous years,” he said.
Republican President Donald Trump’s more hostile stance toward Cuba than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama looks set to have a more lasting impact than Irma.
The number of US visitors had surged since the Obama administration created greater exemptions to a ban on tourism to the Caribbean’s largest island and restored regular commercial flights and cruises.
Arrivals reached a record 619,523 last year, up from 91,254 in 2014.
But the Trump administration in September issued a warning on travel there due to a spate of alleged health attacks on US diplomats in Havana. In November, tighter travel regulations also went into effect.
The double whammy seriously depressed US visits, American tour operators and a cruise line said at Monday’s event, although in reality the restrictions remain looser than before the detente and travel easier.
Cuba is also still one of the safest destinations worldwide, they said.
“While the regulations he changed very little the perception in the US was that you no longer could travel to Cuba legally,” said insightCuba’s Tom Popper, noting his agency’s reservations were down 50 percent this year.
“Part of hosting this event was to communicate that it is 100 percent legal to travel to Cuba.”


Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’

Crossing the unwelcoming terrain of the North Pole is not for the faint-hearted. Mariam Hamidaddin’s brave and inspirational journey to the top of the earth was ended by the threat of frostbite. Reuters
Updated 20 May 2018
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Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’

  • Mariam Hamidaddin was one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions.
  • Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.

LONDON: Mariam Hamidaddin was skiing toward the North Pole in temperatures as low as minus 38 C when she was advised by her team leader to give up on her dream and take a helicopter back to base camp.
She did so reluctantly. Frostbite had taken its toll on the Jeddah-born entrepreneur’s hands, but with no previous experience of such climates, Hamidaddin was unaware of the severity. Only when she was assessed by a Russian medic who spoke pidgin English did she appreciate how close she was to losing her fingers.
“The words he told me were: ‘No chop’ ... which was scary but also a great relief to hear,” said Hamidaddin, one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions. Team leader Felicity Aston deliberately chose women with no athletic or Arctic experience with the intention of demonstrating that anybody can achieve their goals with determination.
As Hamidaddin discovered, however, having an expert on hand helps. The transition from frostnip to frostbite can be a matter of five or 10 minutes, so it is essential for people in extreme weather to pay attention to their body. The tiniest sign can help avoid severe consequences.
The 32-year-old had followed all the instructions learned during training camps in Iceland and Oman: She kept moving to circulate her blood and had not removed her gloves even once in the Arctic. She felt pain, yes, but the entire team had frostnip, so why should she consider quitting?
Fortunately for her future — and her fingers — the decision was taken for her.

Mariam Hamidaddin was an inspirational member of the North Pole expedition before a doctor’s verdict cut her journey short.


“There was no proper moment where I realized I had frostbite,” Hamidaddin told Arab News after returning to the heat of Saudi Arabia. “If it was up to me, I would have wanted to continue, so I am extremely thankful that I was asked to evacuate because the frostbite gradually got worse and worse.
Basically, the team leader saved my fingers.”
Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.
This month on her Instagram feed @InTuneToTheSound, she is posting photos of her journey in non-chronological order. The intention is to be “open and vulnerable and hopefully inspire people.” In a post, a video shows her typing at a computer using only her right pinky finger.
“There is a negative media perception of what a Saudi woman looks like and what she can and can’t do,” said Hamidaddin. “For this reason, it’s important for us to show that what you see in the media isn’t necessary a true reflection of who we truly are.
“It is also important to share our failures as well because when I see success upon success, I cannot connect with that. I am human, I have weakness and I fall, and I need to know that when I fall, I can rise again. Those stories are the ones that will connect most with people.”
With Saudi Arabia women now competing at the Olympic Games, being allowed to attend football matches at certain stadiums and the imminent lifting of a ban on driving, opportunities for women in the Kingdom are blossoming.
Hamidaddin, founder of the Humming Tree, a co-working space and community center that focuses on creativity and wellbeing, said she sees examples of strong, athletic and confident women every day.
“You can see them everywhere — women running, biking, climbing mountains,” she said.
“So we are already there. It’s just a matter of sharing these stories more. We are strong women; we know what we want and we find a way around it. We do what we need to do and we get it done. The fact that driving now is going to be open for us, just makes all that easier.”
Although Hamidaddin’s journey to the North Pole was cut short, the team’s doctor said she could wait out the expedition in the warmth of base camp and celebrate with her team when they reached their destination.
It was an opportunity that, even with frostbite, she was never going to turn down. What she found at the top of the world was a beautiful, dreamlike landscape — and, perhaps fittingly, a perpetual chase to reach her goal.
“Unlike the South Pole, which is a landmass, the North Pole is a constantly drifting landscape. It’s sea ice on top of the Arctic Ocean and it’s always moving, so you are constantly trying to catch it,” she said.
“One minute you’re on top of the world taking a photo and by the time you’re done taking it, well, the North Pole is a few miles away. You have to keep trying to catch it.”