10/15/2017 09:30 EDT | Updated 10/18/2017 09:29 EDT

Cuban minister urges sun-seeking Canadians to return following hurricane Irma

OTTAWA — Cuba's tourism minister says his country has fully rebounded from the ravages of hurricane Irma and says potentially reluctant Canadian sun seekers will find new and improved hotels and beaches.

Manuel Marrero stressed that message during a visit last week to Toronto, where he met tour operators and travel writers.

Tourism is crucial to Cuba's economy and the million Canadians who visit the island annually are the leading customers. That's why Canada was Marrero's first foreign trip after Irma struck Cuba last month, shuttering hotels.

Almost 944,000 Canadians have visited Cuba this year and Marrero said his government is determined to hit the one million mark before years' end.

"They will find the hotels better than before and all their friends and workers there are very enthusiastic and welcoming," Marrero said in an interview conducted in Spanish through a translator.

"The best help that Canadians can give to the Cubans is travelling as tourists so that the hotels realize their potential and we can get back to normal."

The powerful hurricane, which happened to coincide with a bizarre spat with the United States over mysterious sonic attacks on its diplomats in Havana, has driven down visits to Cuba.

The September hurricane was Category 5 strength when it strafed northern Cuba, leaving 10 people dead.

Irma flooded the streets of Cuba's capital, Havana, and tore through seaside resorts on its northern coast — many of them popular tourist destinations for Canadians. It cut across Cuba's northern keys, where newer, foreign-built resorts have been become popular destinations in recent years.

Marrero said most of the damage to hotels and tourist sites has been repaired and he expected full access to locations in the northern keys to be fully restored by mid-November, in time for the start of the high tourist season. All Cubans have full access to water and electricity, he added.

More than a dozen new hotel construction projects were put on hold so that their materials — filled shipping containers already on the island — could be used to repair existing properties, he said.

Cuba's sandy pristine beaches, he said, are even better because Irma's fierce winds whipped more sand towards shore.

Longtime Cuba watchers say they have no doubt the country can make good on its promises to Canadian tourists.

"That sounds exactly right to me," said Mark Entwistle, managing partner with Acasta Cuba Capital and a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba. "Pivot to consolidate existing hotel inventory and then, when they have reversed any losses to the tourism industry, return as quickly as possible to the aggressive construction program for new hotels and services."

Arch Ritter, a Cuba expert at Carleton University, said Cuba's emergency response capabilities are first rate and have withstood the test of past disasters. "I would be quite confident that by December things will be pretty much back to normal."

Irma was the worst hurricane to hit Cuba since hurricane Dennis killed 16 people in 2005.

If Cuba doesn't get the Canadians back, it would be dire, especially given that American numbers have plummeted due to the diplomatic row between the Trump administration and Havana, Ritter said.

The U.S. State Department has issued an alert that warns travellers to avoid Cuba because of the unexplained sonic attacks that have affected 22 of its embassy staff in Havana.

The U.S. hasn't blamed the Cuban government for the attacks, but has accused it of not doing enough to protect diplomats on its soil.

Marrero said the Cuban government has not received a single complaint from a tourist or a tour operator about the sonic phenomenon.

"As for the unilateral position of the United States, our foreign affairs minister has responded that it was a hasty decision."

The bizarre incident is completely "out of sync with everything I know about how the Cubans operate," said Entwistle.

"There is zero reliable evidence that foreign tourists have in any way been exposed to whatever this is."