Surge of Americans tests limits of Cuba's tourism industry

Tue Jan 26, 2016 2:27pm EST
 
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By Jaime Hamre

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's tourism industry is under unprecedented strain and struggling to meet demand with record numbers of visitors arriving a year after detente with the United States renewed interest in the Caribbean island.

Its tropical weather, rich musical traditions, famed cigars and classic cars were for decades off limits to most Americans under Cold War-era sanctions, but those restrictions are fading.

Once a rare sight, Americans are now swarming Old Havana's colonial squares and narrow streets along with Europeans and Canadians.

Entrepreneurs and hustlers have responded by upping prices on taxi rides, meals, and trinkets. Cuban women who pose for pictures in colorful dresses and headwraps while chomping cigars are now charging $5 instead of $1.

Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.

Industry experts worry the island will be unable to absorb an even greater expected surge when scheduled U.S. commercial airline and ferry services are due to start this year.

As it is, foreigners face extreme difficulties booking hotels and rental cars, and those who hoped to discover Cuba before the hordes arrive realize they are too late.

"Cuba is over the top with tourists right now. I've seen so many Americans, it's not even funny," said Ana Fernandez, 44, of Nashville, Tennessee.   Continued...

 
Tourists enjoy a ride in vintage cars in old Havana in this January 17, 2016 picture. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini