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.
At $70 a night for an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, Cuba’s premier beach resort, prices are well below what foreigners pay, but still out of reach for most Cubans struggling to make ends meet on state salaries that average less than $20 a month.
According to Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, Cubans have accounted for 10 percent of occupancy at Cuba’s high-end hotels this summer.
The opening of a domestic market is giving more visibility to an emerging class of wealthier Cubans who have hard currency in their pockets and are eager to sport the colored wristbands of the fancy all-inclusive hotels.
The new Cuban internal tourists are professionals, technicians working for foreign joint ventures and people receiving dollar remittances from relatives living abroad.
“Before a foreigner would ask us about Varadero and we did not know what to say,” recalls Roberto Garcia, a 43-year-old engineer who arrived from Havana with his family of six.
“Now, if you have the money, you can do it.”
Without precise official figures on revenue from internal Cuban tourism, it is difficult to gauge just how much of a boost this new access is giving to the cash-strapped economy.
But to the extent that Cuban tourist spending increases the flow of dollars to the island — by, for example, family members in Miami financing a trip to Varadero for their Cuban relatives — it is helpful, said Cuba expert Paolo Spadoni.
“Financing from abroad might also play quite an important role,” said Spadoni, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.
Some Cubans interviewed on a recent trip to Varadero said expenses were paid by relatives visiting from the United States, a flow which is up 20 percent since U.S. President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions in April on Cuban-Americans visiting the island.
But Obama has made clear he will keep a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in place for the moment to press Cuban leaders to improve human rights and political freedoms. Havana, while agreeing to talks on migration and other issues, has said it will not make “concessions” for improved ties.
With the help of foreign investors, Cuba reluctantly developed its tourism industry in the mid-1990s in response to the deep economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief benefactor and ally for decades.
“All the money made here is for the people,” proclaims a banner at the entrance to Varadero, a 12-mile-long peninsula of white-sand beaches lined with big hotels.
This slogan reflects the long-used government argument that tourism revenues are employed to benefit all of Cuba’s people by helping to pay for free health care and education.
Cuba has some 55,000 hotel rooms managed by the state, many in association with foreign hotel heavyweights such as Sol Melia of Spain, the French firm Accor or Jamaica’s Sandals Resorts.
Attracted by its beaches and enduring revolutionary mystique, 2.3 million foreign tourists, mostly from U.S. allies Canada and in Europe, visited Cuba last year, which brought the island $2.5 billion in revenues and made tourism one of Cuba’s main sources of hard currency.
President Raul Castro said in a speech earlier this month that the number of international tourists is up, but revenues are down compared to last year.
Both numbers are expected to grow if the U.S. Congress approves a proposed bill that would allow all Americans to freely visit Cuba, currently prohibited by the U.S. embargo against the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
But for now, Cuba is looking to Cubans to keep its hotels humming, and people like Alexis are happy to help.
“This is just fantasy. Real life starts again on Monday when we get back to Havana,” he said between sips of a last “mojito” as the sun set over Varadero.
Editing by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher