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Foreign airlines increase interest in Nigeria as travel rebounds - BUSINESSDAY

SEPTEMBER 22, 2021

The return of foreign airlines into the Nigerian airspace and arrival of new entrants show that foreign airlines are increasing interest in the Nigerian market as travel rebounds.

The Federal Government recently designated two Sudanese airlines, Sudan Airways and Sun Air Aviation, and two Nigerian carriers, Kabo Air and Skypower Express, to operate between the Sudanese city of Umm Badr and Kano in Nigeria, as the two countries have a long-term Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA).

Meanwhile, five years after exiting Nigeria, United Airlines last Friday announced that it would resume operations into Nigeria with its new service between Washington DC and Lagos, beginning November 29 (subject to government approval).

The airline says it will operate three weekly flights connecting the US capital to Nigeria’s largest city, which is also the top Western African destination for US-based travellers.

Africa’s largest airline, Ethiopian Airlines, will be resuming its flight to Enugu, the Eastern Heartland of Nigeria. The three weekly flights will be operated with a B787 Dreamliner.

Delta Airlines returned its operations at Lagos’s MMIA to pre-pandemic levels with the resumption of its non-stop service between Lagos and New York-JFK four times a week.

The flight from New York-JFK joins Delta’s existing daily service to Atlanta, which restarted last September following a short suspension due to the airport’s closure at the height of the pandemic.

Qatar Airline recently doubled its flights to Lagos, thereby exploiting the woes of Emirates. The service commenced July 1, and is operated with a B787 Dreamliner featuring 22 seats in business class and 232 seats in economy.

Read Also: Stakeholders kick against continued use of foreign airlines by FG for evacuation

Top travel destinations include London, United States, Canada, Ghana and Egypt.

Against predictions by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that global passenger traffic will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024, Nigeria may be defying this forecast as foreign airlines flood the country as demand continues to rise.

Seyi Adewale, CEO, Mainstream Cargo Limited, says the reason for increased airline frequencies and new entrants show foreign airlines have interest in the market and Nigerians are willing travellers despite COVID-19.

According to Adewale, before any airline makes a decision to increase flight into a country or resume operations, the airline must have procured data from the IATA and other data based agencies to make informed decisions.

Abike Dabiri-Erewa, senior special assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora, said in 2017 that there were at least 15 million Nigerians in the diaspora.

According to recent data obtained from the World Bank, the Nigerian Diaspora population remitted $65.34 billion in three years to boost economic activities in the country.

Remittance inflow made up 4 percent of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product in 2020.

Adewale says these numbers are huge with the multiplier effect, considering direct travel needs, extended family travel needs, and local needs including food or farm produce.

Furthermore, the throughput of Nigerians at COVID-19 testing centres indicates COVID has not been able to restrict or discourage Nigerians from travelling, he states.

“Family visits, business conferences and seminars, physical meetings including exploration that were suspended in 2020 are now gradually back,” he notes.

For Susan Akporiaye, president, National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), airlines are coming into Nigeria because Nigeria has relaxed travel rules unlike some other countries, making it difficult for airlines to operate.

Akporiaye says aviation may be the worst hit of COVID-19 but will always recover because people will always travel for businesses, family visits, and holidays and for studies.

As countries begin to relax their travel rules, and people vaccinate, aviation is expected to recover sooner than expected as more connecting flights will operate from Nigeria, she says.

Olumide Ohunayo, an aviation analyst, notes that Nigerians travel irrespective of the circumstances, and that is why there is a forex crisis in the economy.

“School fees, visiting, applications all have not reduced despite the travel restrictions, Nigerians still move. Even without Emirates coming in, Nigerians are going to Ghana and private jets come there to pick Nigerians. This shows the propensity, irrespective of the conditions,” he explains.

Ohunayo notes that Nigeria is a steady market, but unfortunately, no domestic airlines within that have been able to take advantage of this.

“If the government believes in a flag carrier and they give the flag carrier all the support, such as legal protection and subsidies, they will not be thinking about forming a national carrier. Just as domestic travel is building up, so also international travel is building up and with the acceptance of vaccinations, it encourages people to travel,” he says.

He assures that the airlines are coming because the market is there, stressing that if people are not travelling, there will be no increased frequencies or airlines returning.

Two Years After, Ethiopian Airlines Returns To Enugu Airport - INDEPENDENT

SEPTEMBER 22, 2021

 

LAGOS  – Two years after suspending scheduled flights to Enugu International Airport, Ethiopian Airline is set to return operations to the airport. 

A statement by Shimeles Arage, General Manager, Ethiopian Airlines, Nigeria, said that the airline would recommence three weekly flight services to the airport from October 1, 2021, the Nigerian independence anniversary. 

The statement hinted that the airline would deploy its Boeing B787 Dreamliner aircraft to the route, stressing that initially, the flight would operate On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays of every week for now. 

The statement added: “October 1 is the Nigerian Independence day and the flight to Enugu on that day will reinforce Ethiopian Airlines good relationship with Nigeria since the first flight to Nigeria in 1960.” 

Ethiopian Airlines stopped flights to Enugu in 2019 when the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) shut the airport to refurbish its runway. 

Before the closure of the airport for runway repairs, Ethiopian was the only international airline operating into the airport and since it suspended operations, no international airline operated scheduled flights to the aerodrome. 

The airport was officially opened to domestic flights in 2020 and to international flights in August 2021. Enugu is the capital of Enugu State and was the centre of administration in the former Eastern Nigeria. 

At present, Ethiopian Airlines operates to four airports in Nigeria; Abuja, Lagos, Kano and Enugu. 

Portugal to Lift Limits at Restaurants, Allow Nightclubs to Open - BLOOMBERG

SEPTEMBER 23, 2021

BY  Joao LimaBloomberg News

Tourists at an outdoor table of a restaurant in Lagos, Portugal, on May 30.

Tourists at an outdoor table of a restaurant in Lagos, Portugal, on May 30. , Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Portugal said it will remove limits on the size of groups that can be seated at restaurants from Oct. 1 as it takes the next step in a plan to gradually lift restrictions that were put in place to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Nightclubs will be allowed to reopen, with a EU digital certificate required at the entrance, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said at a press conference in Lisbon on Friday.

Portugal accelerated its Covid-19 inoculation campaign amid a new surge of cases in June, and more than 80% of the population has now completed vaccination, among the highest rates in the world.

Foreign doctors earn five times higher than Nigerian counterparts in some states -Ngige - NAN

SEPTEMBER 24, 2021

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, has frowned at the disparity in payments of foreign and local workers in parts of the country.

He criticised states in Nigeria that employed and paid foreigners five times higher than their Nigerian counterparts.

Ngige said this when he received the Chairman, Federal Character Commission, Dr Muheeba Dankaka, and other Federal Commissioners during a courtesy visit on Thursday in Abuja.

He regretted that such preferential treatment given to foreigners by some states ahead of their Nigerian counterparts does not encourage national unity and loyalty.

He therefore urged the FCC to use its constitutional mandate to promote national unity and loyalty, rather than concentrate their efforts only on the public sector, especially in job recruitment.

He appealed to the commission to ensure equitable distribution of amenities, infrastructure and social services in the country.

According to the minister, the constitution did not say that you do only cases in the public sector.

“There are areas we need you to look into especially where the constitution is silent.

“We have cases where doctors are employed from Egypt, Cuba and Pakistan and they are paid five times what the Nigerian doctor will get if you convert the foreign exchange they use to pay them.

“But in this country, I was here when some of my teachers left from South East to go and teach in the North East at a time.

“They left because we had enough down there to export to our brothers.

”They were paid with our local currency and given some other incentives, which at the end of the day make the economy of those states to be alright.

“Whether you like it or not, if some people are poor in Nigeria in the poverty index rating, when the Nigerian poverty index is being taken, it will be an aggregate, including those places.

”If it is health, when the health parameters are being taken, it is for the whole. So, FCC can go into that area,” he said.

The minister therefore urged the FCC to persuade the affected state governments to open up and advertise those jobs, so that Nigerians can come whether from South-East, South South or North Central to come and fill the gap.

Ngige also advised the commission to be revolutionary and do new things, using its broad mandate, established by Section 14 (3) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended).

“Our constitution is the Supreme law of the land. And any law made by anybody, whether national and state assembly that is in conflict with constitution is void.

“So, you people have a strong mandate from the supreme law of the land.

”I think you should help us build a new country, where we will not be talking about hatred because it is some of these perceptions that cannot even be separated from reality that breeds all the discontent and hate speeches we see.

“We must strive to unite our country. All these North and South, East and West, they are artificial geographical demarcations.

“One body that can unite our country is FCC. As you are here now, you are no longer politicians.

“We count on your chairman that wherever she goes to fly the umbrella of justice, freedom and fair play, we need it for Nigerian workers.

“We need it for Nigerian people. If we distribute schools well, people will go to school in the areas where there are no schools now.

“The almajiris will get western education. When we educate people, we have liberated them from poverty and ignorance which breeds all these security issues all over,” he said.

Ngige noted that the economic situation has eaten into individual pockets for worsening labour dispute issues in the country.

He added that labour unions are now remembering agreements they signed with the previous adminstartions, some dating back to 2009 and even 2002.

“The President said we are alive to our responsibilities and we do not owe any worker salaries.

“The President is strong on that and that is why we have not retrenched anybody. He is also strong on the fact that government is a continuum.

“If they now remember that the previous administration owed them 2009, we will not say no, we will say yes. But we will pay you base on our capacity to pay and ability to pay.

”Those allowances can be stretched and we pay you in tranches. That is what we have been doing with Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Non Academic Staff of Universities (NASU) and Joint Health Staff Union (JOHESU).”

He noted that the resident doctors who were not paid were those illegally recruited by Chief Medical Directors (CMDs) without necessary approval.

“You people know the mandate for recruitment. The Federal Ministry involved will give approval.

“The office of the Head of Service of the Federation and Budget office will give approval.

”These three approvals come to you in Federal Character Commission for final approval and issuing of compliance letter.

“But in the case of these resident doctors, their letters were issued without any of these approvals.

“The CMDs who did that said they thought they could pay them through GFMIS platform, an ad hoc platform used for sundry expenses. Personnel costs have been removed from GFMIS. That is the problem.

”Every payment for personnel costs is done under IPPIS. But now, a waiver has been given. It will come to you in the FCC to give compliance certificate.

”We explained to them that it is not a one bus stop thing. It cannot be done in one day. They said no, we are going on strike.

“You go on strike to force government to regularise an irregularity. It is not done,” Ngige explained.

He also said that the request for compliance letter would be sent to the FCC by the Federal Ministry of Health before the end of the week and urged the commission to give the request expeditious attention.

Earlier, the FCC chairman noted that the commission was established to promote the unity of the country and ensure strong and indivisible nation, fostering sense of belonging, fairness, equality and justice.

Dankaka said they have the mandate to ensure the fair distribution of infrastructure, amenities and social sservice.

She assured that the commission would discharge its mandate in a manner to eschew the feeling of marginalisation from any quarters of the country.

(NAN)

Local airlines lose 60 per cent operation to weather disruptions - THE GUARDIAN

SEPTEMBER 25, 2021

By Wole Oyebade


•Air Peace receives 4th new Embraer jet, pledges to boost services

Local airlines have apologised for multiple delays and cancellations in the air transport service, attributing the discomfort to bad weather that has cost carriers about 60 per cent loss in their operations.

The operators, under the aegis of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), yesterday, empathised with the travelling public, though assured of efforts to manage the dire situation.

They said this at the reception of Air Peace airline’s fourth brand new Embraer 195-E2 jet, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

Vice Chairman of the AON, Allen Onyema, flanked by other members of the association, said the airlines didn’t take their customers for granted, as every delay is a huge operational and economic loss to the operator.

“No airline delays or cancels flights deliberately. The situation we are having now is partly due to the COVID-19 disruption and also the current rainy season. I have 21 aircraft lying down because Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities are shut due to coronavirus.

“Weather is also hitting us very badly. As an airline, safety is very key and cannot be compromised. Every delay is a loss in revenue and disruption of the entire network. No one likes it. But this is the season of rain and thunderstorms, which affects airlines’ operations by about 60 per cent,” he said.

Onyema, however, said that the addition of another new aircraft would boost capacity and bring comfort to passengers.

The mid-range equipment is the fourth of 13 expected from Embraer in Brazil, with another 17 aircraft likely to follow the firm’s order.

Onyema, who is also the Chairman of Air Peace, said the addition was a milestone for the local sector. He said though the venture is huge, nothing compares with new aircraft in terms of economic, comfort and safety benefits.

Director General of NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, also described the arrival of the brand new aircraft as a milestone and a paradigm shift for the industry.

Nuhu commended Air Peace chairman not just for investing in a new aircraft, but picking the right type for the market.

“The Embraer aircraft is the right aircraft; it breaks even with low passenger figures. Your maintenance and operational costs are low.

“Another factor is that the new aircraft is absolutely great for the environment; it does less noise and less pollution. I am really proud that I am DG when this paradigm shift is happening. We are all here to work together to grow the industry and we have to give kudos to the entrepreneur. Without such people, all this will not be possible. We need entrepreneurs like Onyema,” Nuhu said.

Air Peace airline in April 2019 placed a record order for 13 brand new Embraer 195-E2 planes. The order comprises purchase rights for another 17 E195-E2 jets. The first, second and third arrived in January, March and June, respectively.

About eight of the 13 are expected to arrive this year, after which Air Peace will place additional firm order for 10 in 2022, bringing the total to 23 new aircraft from Embraer.

President/ CEO, Commercial Business Aviation, Embraer, Arjan Meija, earlier said the E195-E2 would help Air Peace to achieve its ambition of connecting not just all of Nigeria, but the whole of the African continent, while feeding long-haul flights from the Lagos hub.

“Air Peace is also the first airline to configure a premium cabin with our staggered seat option. Each of the 12 Business Class seats is slightly offset from the other to give more space and privacy. There are three rows of seats arranged two-by-two at 51-inch pitch on the 124 seater aircraft. Passengers by the windows have unobstructed access to the aisle; they don’t need to awkwardly step over their seatmates or ask them to move.”

Ikoyi Passport Office now works 7 days weekly to clear backlog of applications, says Control Officer - THE GUARDIAN

SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

The Ikoyi Office of the Nigeria Immigration Service(NIS) in Lagos, says that it has extended its working days to include Saturdays and Sundays to meet the demands of its applicants.

Mr Ibrahim Liman, the Passport Control Officer (PCO), stated this in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on Sunday in Lagos.

Liman, a Deputy Controller of Immigration (DCI), added that the office also had issued no less than 15,000 passports to qualified applicants since his assumption of office in June 2021.

The official said these while reacting to a series of complaints regarding passport racketeering and cases of uncleared backlogs of passports among others.

He said that his office would fishout and sanctioned offenders appropriately. According to him, the office has extended its operational days to include Saturdays and Sundays in order to meet the demands of thousands of applicants who trooped in , into the office to obtain the documents.

He urged Nigerians to see beyond the fact that the passport is just a travelling document ,saying it should be seen as a security document that would help them in many ways.

He stressed that his office was fully committed to efficient service delivery and it would not relent in justifying its operational mandate.

Liman also warned those who were always indulging in passport racketeering to desist from the act or face severe consequences.

The PCO emphasised that his department had been working unrelentingly to meet the demands of applicants and adhering to due process required in obtaining it.

He explained that some challenges might hinder the timely release of some international passports to prospective applicants.

He said that this would be due to the need for discreet investigation to be conducted by the department on such applicants to determine their eligibility.

Liman, however, stressed that NIS would not hesitate to discipline anyone found to be involved in defrauding or shortchanging any applicants found to be engaging either in sharp practices or any illicit acts capable of spoiling the name of the department.

He said that the Nigeria Immigration Service would continue to remain one of the best passport issuers globally.

” The service has recently introduced additional sophiscticated measures toward checking attitudes inimical to the conduct of its official duties, especially, issues to do with corruption” he added.

He appealed to applicants to always endeavour to visit the NIS Servicom department in all passport offices to make enquiries.

“NIS has reiterated that all qualified prospective seekers of the travel document should apply online,” he added.

He lamented that some applicants used to be impatient and were always in a hurry to push their ways to get the document in few hours and finally get things messed up.

“Can this be done in advanced countries? “I specially appeal to prospective applicants to visit : immigration.gov.ng, which serves as the service website to apply and make payments for their passports” he added.

Ethiopian Airlines Resumes Flights to Enugu October 1 after Two Years - THISDAY

SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

BY  Chinedu Eze

Africa’s leading carrier, Ethiopian Airlines has announced that it would resume flights to Enugu, South-east Nigeria with three times service and operating the state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The airline disclosed in a statement that the flights would operate on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of every week for now.

Ethiopian Airlines said it chose October 1 because it is Nigeria’s independence day; remarking that the flight to Enugu on that day would reinforce Ethiopian Airlines good relationship with Nigeria since its first flight to the country in 1960.

Ethiopian Airlines stopped flights to Enugu in 2019 when the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) closed the airport to rehabilitate the runway.

Before the closure of the airport for runway repairs, Ethiopian was the only international airline operating into Enugu. The airport was officially re-opened to domestic service in August 2020 and to international flights in August 2021.

Enugu is the capital of Enugu state and was the centre of administration in the former Eastern Nigeria. Ethiopian Airlines Operates to four Airports in Nigeria, Abuja, Lagos, Kano and Enugu. It stopped flight service to Enugu when it was closed in 2019 and it diverted flights to the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa until the suspension of international flights to Nigeria due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Aviation stakeholders have commended the Chairman, House Committee on Aviation, Nnoli Nnaji for the critical role he played in facilitating the resumption of Ethiopian Airlines flights to Enugu. The also commended the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika and the Director General of NCAA, Captain Musa Nuhu.

IATA Announces Speakers, Agenda for World Air transport Summit in Boston The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has announced the program and speakers for the World Air Transport Summit (WATS), which is being held in conjunction with the IATA Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Boston, USA, October 3-5, 2021.

“I’m very excited that the World Air Transport Summit will again take place as a live event for the first time since June 2019. Virtual forums are no substitute to the value created when people meet face to face. As we plan for the industry recovery from COVID-19 and address critical climate change issues, the in-person discussions and debates among the industry’s top leaders and stakeholders will be particularly significant,” said IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh.

Session topics include addressing the challenge of climate change, safely reconnecting the world during COVID-19, diversity and inclusion in aviation, collaborating with value chain partners, and air cargo. The always popular CEO Insight Debate will return, moderated by CNN’s Richard Quest, anchor of Quest Means Business.

According to IATA, aviation’s response to climate change would top the agenda. The keynote address would be delivered by Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School, Tufts University and former special representative of the UN Secretary-General and Chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Energy for All. Kyte previously was the World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, leading the run-up to the Paris Agreement.

Britain expected to ease visa rules as truck driver shortage bites - REUTERS

SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

KEY POINTS

  • Britain is expected to announce plans to issue temporary visas to truck drivers to alleviate an acute labor shortage that has led to fuel rationing at some filling stations.
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said it was looking at temporary measures to address the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers.
  • Ministers have cautioned against panic buying, and oil companies say there is no shortage of supplies, merely problems delivering the fuel to the gas stations.


A queue forms for an Esso petrol station on September 24, 2021 in London. A queue forms for an Esso petrol station on September 24, 2021 in London. Dan Kitwood | Getty Images

Britain is expected to announce plans to issue temporary visas to truck drivers to alleviate an acute labor shortage that has led to fuel rationing at some filling stations and warnings from retailers of significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

As queues started forming outside filling stations early on Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said it was looking at temporary measures to address the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers.

Newspapers reported that the government would allow up to 5,000 foreign drivers into Britain on short-term visas, a measure that logistics companies and retailers have demanded for months but which the government had previously ruled out.

The U.K.’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) says Britain needs 100,000 more drivers if it is to meet demand. The driver shortage has been caused partly by Brexit and Covid-19, and the loss of about a year of driver training and testing.

“We’re looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems, but any measures we introduce will be very strictly time limited,” a spokeswoman for Johnson’s Downing Street office said in a statement.

Downing Street declined to give further details.

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Europe needs to focus on gas sector supply going into winter: Wood Mackenzie

Ministers have cautioned against panic buying, and oil companies say there is no shortage of supplies, merely problems delivering the fuel to the gas stations.

However, long lines of vehicles have begun gathering at petrol stations to fill up after BP said it had to close some of its outlets due to the driver shortages.

Some Shell stations have also reported pumps running dry while ExxonMobil’s Esso has also said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted in some way.

EG Group, which runs hundreds of forecourts across Britain, said on Friday it would impose a purchase limit of 30 pounds ($41) per customer for fuel due to the “unprecedented customer demand.”

“We have ample fuel stocks in this country and the public should be reassured there are no shortages,” the Downing Street spokeswoman said.

“But like countries around the world we are suffering from a temporary COVID-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country.”

The fuel issue comes as Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy, also grapples with a spike in European natural gas prices causing soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.

Other countries such as the United States and Germany are also dealing with truck driver shortages.

Britain says the long-term solution is for more British drivers to be hired, with the RHA saying better pay and conditions are needed to attract people into the industry.

But the retail industry has warned that unless the government acts to address the shortage in the next 10 days, then significant disruption is inevitable in the run-up to Christmas.

UK gas stations run dry as trucker shortage sparks hoarding - ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

LONDON (AP) — Thousands of British gas stations ran dry Sunday, an industry group said, as motorists scrambled to fill up amid a supply disruption due to a shortage of truck drivers.

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, said about two-thirds of its members were reporting that they had sold out their fuel, with the rest “partly dry and running out soon.”

Association chairman Brian Madderson said the shortages were the result of “panic buying, pure and simple.”

“There is plenty of fuel in this country, but it is in the wrong place for the motorists,” he told the BBC. “It is still in the terminals and the refineries.”

Long lines of vehicles formed at many gas stations over the weekend, and tempers frayed as some drivers waited for hours. Police were called to one London gas station Sunday after a scuffle broke out. Police said a man was arrested on suspicion of assault.

The haulage industry says the U.K. is short tens of thousands of truckers, due to a perfect storm of factors including the coronavirus pandemic, an aging workforce and an exodus of foreign workers following Britain’s Brexit departure from the European Union last year.

Several countries, including the United States and Germany, also are experiencing a shortage of truck drivers. The problem has been especially visible in Britain, where it has contributed to empty supermarket shelves and shuttered gas pumps.

After weeks of mounting pressure, the U.K.'s Conservative government announced Saturday that it will issue thousands of emergency visas to foreign truck drivers to help prevent a Christmas without turkey or toys for many British families. The government said it would issue 5,000 three-month visas for truck drivers starting in October, and another 5,500 for poultry workers.

Industry groups welcomed the new visa plan, although the British Retail Consortium said it was “too little, too late.”

Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the Confederation of British Industry, said the announcement was “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”

The Associated Press

Cuba starts to reopen economy as COVID-19 vaccine campaign races ahead - REUTERS

SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is allowing a staggered opening from Friday of restaurants, shopping centres and beaches in provinces that have lowered coronavirus cases even as it battles some of the highest nationwide rates of infection per capita worldwide.

The easing of lockdown restrictions coincides with preparations by the cash-strapped Caribbean island nation for its tourist high season, which it hopes will bring much-needed dollars to palliate a dire economic crisis.

The government has already announced it will allow more flights and accept COVID-19 vaccination certificates for inbound travelers in lieu of a PCR test from November.

"In recent days we have determined the conditions are there to gradually reopen many of these in-person services," said Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz.

Health officials said coronavirus infections started falling in September from their peak over the summer months as they raced to vaccinate more than 90% of the population by mid November with their home-grown COVID-19 vaccines.

They have already vaccinated 86.5 % of the 2.2 million inhabitants in Havana, where they started the campaign.

Authorities have selected 533 businesses that may now open to in-person service in the capital including 315 restaurants. Until now eateries had only been allowed to do delivery.

Earlier this month Cuba asked the World Health Organization to start the evaluation process toward officially recognizing its vaccines, which would be a major recognition given data from late phase trials has not yet been published in peer reviewed journals.

Yet in the near term, the virus is overwhelming healthcare facilities in provinces that started their vaccination campaigns after Havana, despite the return of hundreds of doctors from missions abroad to reinforce staffing.

On top of the pandemic-induced crisis, Cuba is dealing with shortages of medicines in an economy struggling with a decline in aid from ally Venezuela, a tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions and the reduction of tourism revenue.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Sarah Marsh; editing by Grant McCool)

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