Cuba: Close, but no cigar for U.S. tourists
By Kitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY
HAVANA — The country famed for vintage architecture, rum, cigars and
'50s cars has a new spin.
Cuba and its tourism industry are ramping up with hip hotels,
Chinese-made tour buses and restaurants serving trendy international
dishes, partly in anticipation of an influx of Americans and their
At the rooftop pool of Havana's Hotel Saratoga, where rates run $200 and
up and two-story suites have humidors and marble bathrooms, young Brits
order mojitos. On the street below, near crumbling apartment buildings
of Old Havana, a boy peers through the hotel restaurant's window and
stretches a hand toward patrons nibbling delicacies unavailable to the
average rice-and-beans-eating Cuban, miming hunger.
In the 50th anniversary year of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro
into power, tourism is the No. 1 moneymaker, while locals might subsist
on $20 a month and omnipresent food rationing.
U.S. citizens can't legally travel to Cuba because of a 1962
U.S.-imposed trade embargo with the Communist island 90 miles south of
But the regime favors U.S. tourism, and stateside hotel and cruise execs
are quietly scoping out the scene.
MORE CUBA TRAVEL: Future looks bright for Varadero Beach
Illicit Americans walk the cobbled streets of Old Havana, photograph
pastel-colored Spanish Colonial buildings and historic churches, buff up
their salsa, puff on mellow cigars and lie on the largest Caribbean
island's white-sand beaches.
They slip in via Canada, Mexico and other Caribbean countries, and
immigration officers keep them out of trouble back home by not stamping
U.S. passports with the taboo "Cuba" imprint.
About 41,000 of last year's 2.3 million visitors were from the USA,
including legal Cuban Americans, Cuban officials say. Cuba welcomes U.S.
tourists, attracted despite the chance of fines or surrender of
passports if caught when re-entering the USA.
Visitors are drawn by Cuba's "unique flavor, sensualism, beautiful
people," says Christopher P. Baker, author of Cuba guides, including
"In Cuba, everyone is happy, even if they've got nothing," says
Havana-bound Liuber Leiva, 33, of Miami, in gold earring and baggy
shorts, at the Miami airport. He shows how to get bags shrink-wrapped to
thwart theft and negotiate daunting lines of Cuban Americans with stacks
of gift-loaded suitcases. They now can visit without restriction.
"Here, you make money, but you might not know your neighbor," he says.
"There, you just go on over and have a party. At my family's house,
there's gonna be 50 people drinking, eating a pig's head."
Havana says 'hola' to hedonism
Indeed, past white-capped nurses checking fliers for flu at the Havana
airport and roadside posters proclaiming the glories of Che Guevara,
Fidel and brother Raul Castro (who now nominally runs the country and
supports U.S. tourism), radios blare merengue and pachanga, and a mother
is glimpsed through a window boogieing while breastfeeding.
Lovers entwine on the sea-front wall on steamy nights, escaping
un-air-conditioned apartments shared by extended families. And what
pleasure seeker wouldn't love a city whose many museums include ones
dedicated to chocolate, tobacco and rum? Visitors are encouraged to join
Many a Havana restaurant features a band, even at lunch. At Café Taberna
— one of the vintage eateries gussied up in Old Havana by a Cuban firm
called Habaguanex — New Jersey Cuban-Americans leave their husbands and
plates of chicken and pork to spontaneously sway their hips to the
Septeto Matamoros band. At El Floridita, a tourist trap billed as the
home of the daiquiri, a singer accompanies the sipping of the $6.50 lime
Travelers who recall Cuba's musty hotels and often unpalatable fare are
surprised by the upgrades (though old-building plumbing can be iffy).
The Saratoga has a spa and menu of pillows. Hotel Telégrafo boasts rooms
with boutique-chic touches. And Hotel Raquel is a Jewish-themed lodging
with a rock from Jerusalem in the lobby.
The Old Havana spiff-up "is a bit artificial, but I enjoy seeing the
real neighborhoods" of the nearly 5-century-old city, says Danish
tourist Thomas Bligaard, 20, sunning on the Raquel's rooftop.
Wi-Fi and in-home restaurants
He and other visitors savor Cuba traditions, such as dining in
restaurants in private homes. These paladares, started to bring in extra
cash for families, have become institutions. Antique-filled La Guarida,
in a run-down apartment building, is romantic and sophisticated. At La
Cocina de Lilliam, you ring a bell at the gate of a home in a
residential neighborhood and dine on smoked salmon and tiramisu.
Havana's grande dame, the 1930 Hotel Nacional de Cuba, modeled after The
Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., is still imposing, with columned arcades
and stone towers, even if many rooms could use an update. That's where
Kevin Costner, Steven Spielberg and Benicio Del Toro stayed during
cultural-exchange trips. Americans with special visas can visit without
penalty in certain cases.
Though it now has Wi-Fi, the Nacional is a throwback to Havana's
pre-Castro glamour-tourism days, when gambling was legal (the Castro
regime outlawed it). Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner honeymooned at the
Nacional. Today's visitors still order drinks while overlooking Havana's
harbor. Tablemates might include made-up, miniskirted ladies looking to
meet a businessman or two.
Another tourist magnet with the mystique of bygone days is Ernest
Hemingway's villa outside the city. It's frozen in time, with bottles
still on his drinks cart, shoes in the closet, stuffed animal heads —
even his fluctuating weight written in pencil over the bathroom scale.
Hemingway regularly visited El Floridita for a cocktail.
But Cuba isn't always a daiquiri-fueled fiesta. Residents tend to be
fearful of speaking their minds about politics to visitors, looking over
their shoulders to see if they are being overheard in a country where
freedom of expression is limited. The phrase "no es facil" (it isn't
easy) is used when travel glitches — waiting for luggage, trying to
figure out attraction schedules or to change tour plans — arise.
Bureaucracy is big here. So is surveillance of tourists and journalists.
And while service is more efficient than in years past, it is not always
a strong point, which may not play well with American tourists known for
wanting their own way, and pronto.
"More work is needed to bring (Cuba) up to standard" to handle a horde
of Americans, says hotel consultant Charles Suddaby of Toronto.
The tourist hustle, love for sale
Despite black flags signifying U.S. "terrorist" acts planted outside the
U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, most Cubans profess love of
Americans, if not U.S. policies. So do touts called jineteros. The
nickname is based on the Spanish word for jockey, meaning they ride on
tourists' backs. A Havana fixture, they're as annoying as the smell of
garbage that permeates some parts of the city.
Jineteros nuzzle up to visitors offering cheap cigars, a room in a
private home or their "sisters." "I love you!" they may yell in English
at a foreign woman, in hopes of getting into her pocketbook.
At Casa de la Música, a popular downtown Havana nightclub/dance hall
that lures locals and vacationers, attractive twentysomething Cubans
snuggle with visitors of either sex. Some relationships last for a
night, some for years, with the foreigner returning to proffer presents
and cash to make his or her beloved's life easier.
While everyday Cubans may chat or invite you into their homes, in the
tourist zone, lots are "out to make a buck" or a wrest a tip, says
tourist Simon Murphy, 40, of Dublin. He and buddies spent the night
before fending off hustlers and provocative local ladies.
Tour guide Ludwig Díaz Montenegro, an efficient 35-year-old with a good
command of English, keeps pesterers at bay as he proudly shepherds
visitors through attractions such as cigar factories, not to mention the
bureaucratic maze. "Americans want to see what Cuba is really like
versus the information they have been fed," he says. "U.S. tourists are
welcome here, not just in terms of economics, but socially. Here, (we
don't) deal with a person's mind-set versus another person."
Says United States Tour Operators Association president Bob Whitley: "If
Americans don't like the policies of the government of a country, they
(can) choose not to go. But a lot of people want to see Cuba because
they've been denied the right."
Cuba: Close, but no cigar for U.S. tourists – USATODAY.com (1 October 2009)