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Cuba chooses French firms to expand airport as tourism booms

[HAVANA] Cuba said on Wednesday it had chosen two French firms, construction group Bouygues and Aeroports de Paris SA, to modernize, expand and operate its Jose Marti International Airport in Havana to cope with a boom in tourism.

The number of foreign visitors to the Caribbean island jumped 12 per cent in the first half of 2016, the Tourism Ministry said late on Tuesday, putting Cuba on track to a new annual record and its ageing infrastructure under strain. "The project foresees the financing and execution of immediate actions to improve the quality of services as well as medium and long-term investments corresponding to the estimated growth in passengers," the Transport Ministry said.

Cuba is becoming increasingly dependent on tourism as exports plunge due to falling global commodities prices and crisis-stricken ally Venezuela reduces shipments of cheap oil.

The number of international tourists increased 17 per cent to 3.5 million in 2015 and generated US$2.8 billion, official data shows, making it the second strongest revenue stream, after the export of professional services.

The Transport Ministry said Cuba selected Bouygues because of its track record in the construction sector in Cuba and Aeroports de Paris due to its experience operating major airports in France and elsewhere.

Under a deal France struck with Cuba last year, it agreed to convert several hundred million dollars in debt into development projects for the island.

The French embassy in Havana was not immediately available for comment on whether the airport expansion was one of those projects.

Already popular as a beach resort for Europeans and Canadians, Cuba has seen a particular rise in American visitors since the United States and Cuba announced in December of 2014 that they would work to normalise relations.

This wave is expected to surge further after US commercial scheduled flights are reintroduced at the end of this month, as part of the deepening detente.