Dollars offer immediate benefit to struggling economy
HAVANA — Tourists take refuge from the sun in the shade of Juan Agustin Plasencia’s restaurant in Old Havana.
They enjoy the food and drinks, and the taste of Cuba he offers. On the yellow walls are a Coca-Cola sign from the first half of last century, an ad promoting 1952 Ford trucks for the sugar cane harvest and black-and-white photos of Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro.
The working jukebox that gives the name of La Vitrola to the restaurant is silent as the trio Bel Kanto plays traditional Cuban songs, such as the classic Guantanamera.
Plasencia opened his restaurant at a corner of the restored Plaza Vieja, just
12 days before President Barack Obama announced steps to normalize relations with Cuba. Plasencia wanted to recreate yesterday’s Cuba for tourists who wander in the Spanish colonial streets of Old Havana.
“I think this is a business that can bring the past to the North American visitor,” said Plasencia, who opened his business with his savings.
Americans are not his biggest clients, but more are coming to enjoy traditional Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja, a meal of stewed beef and vegetables. Even with the U.S. embargo, he sells Coca-Cola, both regular and diet.
American tourism is increasing in Cuba since Obama’s push to change the U.S. relationship with the island country. And more tourism might offer the most immediate benefits to Cuba’s struggling economy.
But this communist country continues many of the practices that have spawned fierce criticism over the years. Cuba continues to jail dissidents, rejects democratic reforms, and controls the press. Human Rights Watch says Cuba continues to repress virtually all forms of political dissent.
Republicans in the U.S. Congress are fighting Obama’s actions, demanding more change from the Castro government.
Nevertheless, many foreigners want to see this country, this forbidden island with a state-controlled economy, before U.S. businesses rush in and change it forever.
“I wanted to come to Cuba because … it has been preserved for 50 years and it has one of the most pristine coral reefs,” said Albert Blommestyn, 55, from Fort Lauderdale, who visited with a diving group. “And I feel it’s going to be on the verge of changing.”
Each evening, Old Havana’s narrow streets and big plazas are cluttered with tourists. Some listen to live music played at restaurants while eating and drinking. Others walk in the streets, glancing at tour guides as they find their way. Some step off buses, suitcases in hand as they walk to nearby hotels. They visit churches and museums, they buy cigars, paintings and other souvenirs, like car tags that say “Cuba.”
As U.S. airlines, cruise ships and ferries make plans to serve the island and new American travel businesses prepare tours, Cuba is shopping for foreign investments to build the tourism infrastructure needed to welcome this new wave of visitors.
“The tourism industry in Cuba is really important for the development of our economy, not only for the results it is able to achieve in its own development, but also for the productive chains of development that it is able to generate in other segments of the economy,” said Dalila Alba González, spokeswoman for the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.
She said interest in Cuba wasn’t created by Obama, but there has been an increase.
In the months after Obama’s announcement, the number of U.S. visitors to the island, not including Cuban Americans, grew by 53 percent — 85,357 visitors between January and July 20 compared with 55,836 in the 2014 period, according to José Luis Perelló, professor at the School of Tourism at Havana University.
U.S. visitors made up a small fraction of Cuba’s more than 2 million tourists so far this year. But that number, and the money travelers bring, is expected to skyrocket as travel restrictions are loosened. Perelló projected as many as 1.2 million Americans could travel to Cuba each year if travel restrictions are lifted completely and commercial flights authorized.
The country also has seen an increase in Cuban Americans visiting. Their numbers grew between January and July 20 to 157,730, a 10.4 percent increase from the previous year, Perelló said. Many wait to check-in at U.S. airports for charter flights loaded with wrapped-up televisions, tablets, smartphones, clothing, shoes, car parts or anything their relatives and friends in the island may need.
Perelló believes 2015 could end with 3.5 million international visitors traveling to Cuba, 145,000 of them Americans. But what will happen in the coming years will depend mostly on whether the U.S. removes restrictions on cruises and yacht trips, and authorizes Americans to visit the island as tourists, he said.
The U.S. currently bans travel to Cuba if it is just to lie on the beaches of Varadero, or relax with Cohiba cigars, or try a daiquiri in Old Havana’s Floridita. Since January, U.S. citizens who want to travel to Cuba need only sign a statement saying their trip falls under one of the 12 general categories or obtain a special license from the Treasury Department.
One of the most common programs used by Americans without relatives on the island is People to People, which can involve costly cultural exchange activities, such as visits to schools, academic institutions or museums.
Naples firm Siteseeing Cuba opened for business in July, offering different cultural trips. And Naples resident Thomas Hecker, CEO of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, organized an environmentally-based trip for 12 visitors in June with International Expeditions to raise money for the center. He is planning another trip for next year.
“It’s so desirable right now,” he said. “A lot of people want to go there before it changes.”
Some Americans travel to Cuba by a roundabout route, such as Tami Ruth and her husband. The two went to Mexico from their home in Los Angeles, and then to Cuba.
The path to Cuba through a third country allows American travelers to circumvent the U.S. rules. Once in Cuba, immigration officers don’t usually stamp American passports, only the Cuban visas.
Ruth and her husband walked through the streets of Old Havana on a mid-July Saturday night, looking for a place to exchange Mexican pesos for Cuban currency so they could buy drinks.
They got the idea to travel to Cuba from a friend who read a newspaper advertisement. Ruth had never before thought of traveling to Cuba, but the idea thrilled her.
“It’s an adventure,” she said.
They got their visas for Cuba from an online site, just like the plane tickets.
They were among the 21,404 U.S. visitors who arrived in Cuba through a third country between January and July 20, a 63 percent increase over the 2014 period, Perelló said.
They stayed at a private home they found on the website Airbnb. They spent their days walking in Havana, eating at paladares — private restaurants — and talking to people about the revolution and the changes that are happening.
Ruth said she preferred traveling this way, instead of touring on some organized schedule that might offer little time to see what she wants.
In Cuba, she said, she felt welcome. “I think it’s an amazing experience.”
Much of the money left by tourists on the island goes to the Cuban government through hotels owned by state companies and often managed by foreign hotel chains, or state-owned travel agencies.
But small-business owners — cuentapropistas — also get a share through restaurants, souvenir shops and taxi services.
Souvenir vendors usually sit or stand outside their small shops packed with keepsakes in Old Havana.
Magali Pereda, 47, stood in front of her shop on Brasil Street, a road that ends at the Capitolio.
She opened the shop with her daughter about two years ago in a small space she rents, barely enough to fit four people. It’s filled with magnets featuring the Cuban flag or cigars, paintings and clothing bags with the logos of Havana Club — the rum brand — or the Cuban flag.
Pereda sees more U.S. tourists than she used to, and they are less afraid to say where they’re from.
“Before, they were reluctant to tell you,” she said.
She likes American customers because they don’t bargain. And she wants more of them.
“Sure, let come all those who want to,” she said outside her shop.
In Parque Central, a busy park with three large hotels a few feet away from the Capitolio, Cristian Páez, 39, talks under the shade of a tree with fellow drivers of old American cars, all brightly painted, waiting for tourists.
Before, he drove a standard taxi. But he inherited a purple and cream 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible from his grandfather, a farmer, after he died. Now he takes tourists for a nostalgic ride around Havana. He makes more money in this job, about 50 to 60 CUC a month, or about $50 to $60, he said.
“I’d love that all Cuba would fill up with tourists to have more work,” he said
The U.S. has approved several ferry companies for travel to Cuba, and a Carnival Cruise route between Miami and several Cuban ports.
Jet Blue started to fly weekly charters between John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and Havana in July, and offers flights from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
It could be difficult, though, for those travelers to find hotel rooms in tourist spots during high season.
The island counts 62,090 rooms in 360 hotel premises, according to Perelló, the tourism professor. Of those, 58 percent are managed by 18 international hotel chains partnering with state companies. The Tourism Ministry expects nearly 23,000 more hotel rooms in five years, for a total of about 85,000.
Cubans also rent 1,915 private homes and 8,400 rooms to tourists, he said.
Perelló said the country slowly built accommodations for increased tourism, despite limited resources. But no one predicted the normalization of U.S. relations and the surge of travelers that would bring.
Ecotourism has potential in a country where much of the area remains untouched.
Some Americans sit in a small café in Las Terrazas, a village of about 1,000 people where white country houses with red-tile roofs stretch along narrow streets next to San Juan Lake. They are at the heart of Biosphere Reserve Sierra del Rosario.
The community lives mostly off tourism. International visitors make up about half of the 95,000 visitors each year, tour guide Otis Campa said.
The Americans in the café are members of a diving club on a trip organized by Ocean Doctor, whose president is the former CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
They waited two years to come and paid $7,500 each. The first stop was Havana and then Las Terrazas. The main event: a week of scuba diving in Los Jardines de la Reina — Gardens of the Queen — one of the healthiest, most pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean.
They also visited local artist Lester Campa, who greets tourists in his studio overlooking a lake. There he sells his paintings, typically Cuban landscapes. He painted some in Naples, he said, while he was staying at his brother’s.
“I did those pieces in the garage,” he said, pointing to several, including a painting of two palms against a blue sky.
While others shop for souvenirs of wood or linen, some in the group have an espresso with a cookie in the shade at Café María, a covered, open-air seating area.
David E. Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, said the organization has taken about 200 visitors to Cuba in two years on trips focusing on environmental education. It’s also working with Cuban organizations on environmental projects to promote sustainable tourism in the country.
“People are willing to pay a premium for an authentic experience,” he said. “And Cuba is authentic. … It has not been remade for the tourist.”