HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's tourism boom continues at a record pace but is expected to cool off during 2016 with the government forecasting nearly 6 percent growth this year after a 17 percent increase in 2015.
Amid the international buzz surrounding the country's detente with the United States, Cuba received a record 3.5 million visitors in 2015, then set another record for any single month in January 2016, officials said.
The influx has pushed capacity to the limit and forced many tourists to scramble for hotel rooms, raising questions about how Cuba will absorb additional visitors when scheduled U.S. commercial airline service starts this year.
The Communist government is rushing to increase hotel capacity in the capital Havana and the beach resort Varadero, the two markets under the most strain, said Dalila Gonzalez, deputy director of marketing for the Tourism Ministry.
Cuba has forecast 200,000 additional visitors this year, or 3.7 million total, which would be less than a 6 percent increase, Gonzalez said.
The January record of 417,764 visitors was up 12.7 percent from a year earlier.
"One of our priorities for this year is the construction of four- and five-star hotels, especially five-star hotels," Gonzalez told Reuters. "All you have to do is walk the streets of Old Havana to see a lot of construction under way."
Projects remain months or years from completion, meaning the hotel crunch is likely to continue, especially during the high season from November to March.
The Manzana de Gomez, an ornate building being converted into a luxury hotel, is due for completion by early 2017. It is a joint venture between the venerable Swiss chain Kempinski and the Cuban state tourism company Gaviota.
Construction recently began on a Sofitel luxury hotel on a prime parcel fronting Havana's famous malecon, or boardwalk. Refurbishing of out-of-commission rooms in ageing hotels is also under way.
Occupancy rates at four- and five-star hotels in Havana and Varadero surpassed 80 percent last year, Gonzalez said, a figure that includes the low season.
Because Americans are still banned from tourism under the U.S. trade embargo and only allowed on officially sanctioned visits, Americans concentrate in the capital rather than at forbidden beach resorts. That makes finding a hotel in Havana during the high season a challenge.
American visits last year rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans, and Gonzalez said a similar percentage increase was possible in 2016.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio)