After long ban, some Cubans sample tourism luxury

Thu Aug 13, 2009 3:15pm EDT
 
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By Esteban Israel

VARADERO, Cuba (Reuters) - Floating, cocktail drink in hand, in the pool of a five-star hotel in Cuba, Alexis basks in a holiday experience that for years was out of reach for him in his own homeland.

The pastel-colored hotel buildings, the well-ordered gardens, the turquoise waters and the perpetually smiling waiters -- all just 84 miles east of his home in Havana. So near, and yet for many years, so far away.

Until last year, Cuba's communist government prevented its citizens from entering hotels reserved for hard currency-paying foreign tourists. It argued that tourism was a strategic revenue sector and that widening access would create inequalities in a socialist society, where most earn inconvertible Cuban pesos.

The tourist hotels, whose services, shops and restaurants are a world away from the hardships and shortages experienced by most Cubans, remained largely out of bounds for ordinary citizens. This prohibition angered most Cubans, who considered it made them second-class citizens in their own homeland.

But when President Raul Castro took over from his ailing older brother Fidel Castro last year, one of his first acts was to end the ban and open all facilities to Cubans. The change was widely popular even though most islanders still can not afford to stay at the tourist hotels.

"Let me tell you, this is great," said Alexis, an employee of a state-run Havana hard currency store who declined to give his full name, as his girlfriend returned from the bar with more "mojito" cocktails -- a tropical mix of lime juice, Cuban rum, and mint leaves.

In the years immediately following the 1959 revolution, Cuban workers were allowed into the island's premier resorts, yet the need to earn much-needed hard currency led to the development again of a more exclusive foreign tourism sector, especially over the last 15 years.

But the global financial crisis has taken a big bite out of Cuba's international tourism, so the Cuban travel industry, seeking to boost occupation in half-empty hotels, has begun offering reduced-price package deals to Cubans.   Continued...