Cuba opens most of country to tourism as enters "new normality"

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Havana

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said late on Thursday that most of the Caribbean island nation would open to international tourism starting next week as it moved towards a "new normality" after containing its coronavirus outbreak.

The country, which closed its borders six months ago in a bid to contain the spread of the virus, has been gradually opening up to tourism ahead of the November-March high season, first in the northern keys and then its Varadero beach resort.

Thirteen of Cuba's sixteen provinces will now be open to tourism, Marrero told a roundtable discussion broadcast to the nation, albeit not yet the capital, Havana which only just appears to have curbed a second wave of infections with strict measures, including a curfew.

International tourism is one of Cuba's top hard currency earners, so its suspension this year has dealt a blow to the cash-strapped economy, even as the United States has continued to harden its decades-old trade embargo.

"We will open the possibility of international flights for all the provinces that are in this third phase," Marrero said, noting that all arrivals would be tested.

Cuba's universal, community-based healthcare system has contained its outbreak and reduced mortality by hospitalizing all confirmed cases, tracing and isolating their contacts and applying a raft of therapeutic treatments.

Cuba has reported just 11 deaths from Covid-19 per million inhabitants, compared with 203 for the Dominican Republic and 647 for the United States, statistics from Johns Hopkins University show.

That has come at a cost, however.

The state has, for example, paid for putting 115,000 suspected cases and contacts of confirmed cases at isolation facilities, according to Marrero. Of those, fewer than 5% tested positive for the virus.

From now on, Cuba will allow people to isolate at home, Marrero said.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel said at the roundtable the country had proven it had learned to live with the virus, curbing its second wave of infections better than the first and sharply reducing the mortality rate.

As such, economic and social life could resume while maintaining strict anti-COVID measures such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, he said.

"The pandemic has cost us and had a high impact on our state budget, but we have worked according to a non-negotiable principle: the main treasure is the life of the Cuban people," he said.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta. Editing by Gerry Doyle)