Monday, March 23, 2015

Tourists flocking to Cuba 'before the Americans come'

Tourists flocking to Cuba 'before the Americans come'
March 23, 2015 7:18am

HAVANA (AP) — Bookings to Cuba jumped 57 percent for one New York tour
operator in the weeks after Washington said it would renew ties with
Havana. In February, they were up 187 percent; and so far this month,
nearly 250 percent.

The boom is just one sign that the rush is on to see Cuba now — before,
as many predict, McDonald's claims a spot in Old Havana and Starbucks
moves in on Cubita, the island's premium coffee brand.

The sense that detente will unleash an invasion of Yankee tourists and
change the unique character of one of the world's last remaining
bastions of communism is shared by many travelers flocking here.

"Cuba has a very authentic atmosphere which you see nowhere else in the
world," Gay Ben Aharon of Israel said while walking through Revolution
Square. "I wanted to see it before the American world ... but also the
modern Western world comes here."

Outsiders may romanticize the "time-capsule" nation, but many on the
island are ready for change.

Where foreigners see charming, historic architecture, bright 1950s-era
American cars and vast stretches of white-sand beaches, locals see
decaying buildings in need of repair, new vehicles priced beyond their
reach and a lack of economic opportunity.

For many Cubans living in dilapidated, multigenerational tenements,
change could be good. It may expand access to the Internet and the
outside world, creating engagement that could bring brighter economic
days and, practically speaking, make it easier to fix a leaky roof.

"We're very excited," said Yadiel Carmenate, a 26-year-old English major
at the University of Matanzas who moonlights as a tour guide.

It's unlikely Cuba will see major changes overnight. Talks to take the
first steps toward normalized relations are just beginning and there is
stiff opposition in the U.S. Congress to lifting the 53-year-old embargo
that bars most trade with and travel to the island.

Still, the December announcement appears to have sparked an influx of

InsightCuba, the tour operator based in New Rochelle, New York, is
adding excursions as its monthly bookings explode compared with early 2014.

"It's a huge surge," company president Tom Popper said. "Word's gotten
out and people are communicating that they want to go before Cuba changes."

Already this year, more foreigners are roaming the cobblestoned streets
of Old Havana. Cuba saw a 16 percent increase in visitors in January
compared with a year earlier, a total of about 371,000.

Tourism, a $2.6 billion-plus industry, is one of the main engines that
has kept Cuba's economy sputtering along. Last year, the country
welcomed 3 million visitors, a record.

About 600,000 U.S. travelers are estimated to visit Cuba each year, most
of them Cuban-Americans visiting family but also tens of thousands
coming on approved cultural, religious and educational exchanges. An
untold number of others have, for years, skirted travel restrictions by
journeying through third countries such as the Bahamas or Mexico.

Cuban officials estimate that 1.5 million Americans would travel here
annually if all restrictions were removed, supplanting Canada as the No.
1 source of tourism and potentially adding some $2 billion a year to
state coffers.

However, the island is hardly ready for a Yankee invasion. Already it
strains to accommodate travelers during the December-April high season.

Tourists trying to dine at high-end private restaurants are often
struggling to find an empty table these days, and it's practically
impossible to get a room at Havana's best hotels. Some travel agents
report being turned away when trying to book group reservations.

Rogelio Gauvin, a tourist from Canada, predicts demand will continue to
outpace capacity.

"I see a lot of construction, very nice restorations — that's very
good," he said. "But there won't be enough hotels. There won't be enough
restaurants. There won't be enough services to accommodate the Americans
who will come like rats on a ship."

Privately run B&Bs and diners that have mushroomed under President Raul
Castro's economic reforms could help ease the load on the government's
64,000 hotel rooms and bland, poorly stocked restaurants.

The recently renovated Havana airport is set to undergo a $207 million
expansion led by Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht.

Several U.S. airlines have talked of launching service to the island;
currently all U.S.-Cuba flights are operated by charter companies.
Canada-based Cuba Cruise has begun marketing its sea voyages directly to

Travel agents that have been doing business here for years are aware
that the competition is about to get a lot stiffer. Carlos Javier
Rodriguez, head of Argentina-based tour operator Carimar Eventos,
expressed hope that Cuba would reserve some quota of capacity for
non-U.S. travelers.

"We tour operators," he said, "can say that we view the arrival of
American tourism with trepidation."

For now, Rodriguez is busy tending to travelers interested "in
experiencing this Cuba, and right away."

Carmenate, the university student and tour guide, dismisses concerns
that the island will lose its character.

Cubans, he said, eagerly await change but won't allow their country to
become the capitalist playground it was before the 1959 revolution.

"It's not going to be that way. Our identity, we will preserve it at all
cost," he said. "That's why I think that it's going to be really hard
for you to find a McDonald's or a Starbucks right down the corner."

Thomas Mieszkowski, a 28-year-old tourist from Leeds, England, however,
was among the visitors taking in the experience of seeing Cuba now —
before, he said, it risks becoming "another outpost of Florida."


Associated Press producer Milexsy Duran contributed to this report.


Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter:

Peter Orsi on Twitter:

Source: Tourists flocking to Cuba 'before the Americans come' - San
Francisco Chronicle -

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