Arab Spring and U.S. reforms make Cuba a tourist hotspot

Tue Jan 24, 2012 6:05pm EST
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By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - The Arab Spring, changes in U.S. policy and economic reforms at home are driving a tourist rush that is giving communist-run Cuba one of its best seasons ever and stretching its ability to accommodate demand.

Hotels are full to the brim and Old Havana, the capital's historic center, is teeming with tourists from around the world, soaking up the warm winter sun in outdoor cafes and strolling through narrow colonial streets.

Along the nearby Malecon, Havana's seaside boulevard, 25 buses were lined up on a recent sunny day, waiting to carry visitors to their next destinations.

At the Bodeguita del Medio, where Ernest Hemingway supposedly drank mojitos and tourists now go to emulate him, almost as many people stood on the stone-paved street waiting to get into the jam-packed bar as were squeezed inside.

"We are at capacity. The beach resorts, Havana city are totally full. In the interior of the country, there is nowhere to find a room, nowhere," said the manager of a foreign hotel company.

Like most other people interviewed for this story, the manager asked not to be named to avoid problems with the Cuban government.

Cuba just completed its best year for tourism with 2.7 million visitors in 2011, and experts say current bookings suggest it will almost certainly beat that number in 2012.

"I think 2012 will be a very good year and I see real difficulties in how to organize and manage all this in 2013 and 2014," said the head of a European travel agency's Havana office.   Continued...

<p>Tourists take pictures in front of the Ministry of Interior (MININT) building displaying an image of revolution leader Che Guevara, in Havana's Revolution Square January 24, 2012. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa</p>